Three nuggets to ponder as the Tigers lick their wounds from the opener and prepare for Arkansas State this Saturday:
• These SEC games have to stop. Pardon the broken-record here, but the annual beatdown (sometimes plural) at the hands of SEC competition is damaging the Tiger program, and severely. Since 1997, Memphis is now 2-25 against SEC competition. The Tigers have lost 11 straight, and the margins of the last six games are as follows: 17, 31, 28, 42, 36, 45. So not only is the gap in strength significant . . . it’s widening.
Understand that athletic director R.C. Johnson is (presumably) trying to attract a bigger, better conference, one with Bowl Championship Series ties. So you do this by scheduling SEC competition? This is like an average Joe (or Frank) trying to land his dream girl by hanging out at a male modeling agency. The contrast doesn’t help. Making matters worse, the most recent drubbings have been at the hands of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Tennessee . . . second-tier SEC programs.
All this in the interest of selling some extra tickets (to fans wearing opposing colors)? I assure you there were scores (if not hundreds) of fans at last Thursday’s game, willing to give optimism a chance, who will now make other plans for September 17th, when Memphis hosts Austin Peay. Stop this abuse, R.C.
• There’s hope in the running game. Forget the score. What sickened me last Thursday night was seeing Jerrell Rhodes curled into a fetal position 17 minutes into the season. The first, most significant stride a struggling program can take is to establish a running game. (Memphis scored exactly five touchdowns on the ground in 2010.) Rhodes carried the ball six times for 28 yards (a healthy 4.7 average) before leaving the game with a bone bruise after a short reception. (Rhodes is questionable for the Arkansas State game.)
If any good came of Rhodes being lost, it was the early emergence of freshman Artaves Gibson. The Mitchell High grad carried the ball 17 times for 85 yards (5.0 average). Gibson’s size (220 pounds) would be a new kind of weapon for the Tigers. Combined with an immense offensive line, it appears Memphis might be able to grind away some lengthy drives. Troubling were the two fumbles by Billy Foster. He won’t be carrying the rock with any regularity if he can’t keep a grip.
• The position of safety has its name for a reason. Players trusted with manning this position are there, primarily, to prevent the big play. They pick up receivers beyond the linebackers (or beaten cornerbacks) and they close on ball-carriers who manage to elude the first two lines of defense. Based on Mississippi State’s five touchdowns of at least 35 yards in the opener, Mitch Huelsing and Cannon Smith may not be the right tandem for this job. It’s unfair to judge any player on a single game, but I’ll be watching the safeties Saturday for signs of progress. If it comes — progress — you’ll see it on the scoreboard, too.