Perhaps SMU is the model. As recently as 2007, the once-proud Mustang program was 1-11. A year later, under a new coach (June Jones), SMU again finished 1-11. But in 2009, the Mustangs tied for first in Conference USA’s Western Division and finished a respectable 8-5. This afternoon, they came to the Liberty Bowl as C-USA’s reigning Western Division champs and steamrolled the Tigers, 42-0.
The SMU offense was more clinical in its dominance of the Memphis defense than were Mississippi State and Arkansas State in earlier blowout wins over the Tigers. Instead of big plays, the Mustangs drove the field steadily behind junior tailback Zach Line and senior quarterback J.J. McDermott. Line scored the first of three one-yard touchdowns with just under three minutes expired (he now has a nation-leading 11 rushing touchdowns in four games). McDermott passed for 357 yards and three touchdowns, the biggest a 44-yard strike to freshman Der’rikk Thompson with 7:01 left in the first half to give SMU a 28-0 lead.
“We got off to a slow start,” said Memphis coach Larry Porter after the game, “and gave them too much, too early. We couldn’t respond, couldn’t regroup. Defensively, I thought we started to settle in, but we didn’t finish the way we’d like. We forced four turnovers, so there were some positives. We’ve got to continue to build.”
The Memphis offense was overmatched, both on the ground and in the passing game. The Tigers carried the ball 24 times for a net loss of 14 yards on the ground (counting four sacks of Memphis quarterback Taylor Reed). The longest carry of the day was an 8-yard run by Billy Foster. Freshman center Monte Golden — third on the team’s depth chart — was forced to start because of injuries to A.J. Antonescu and Chris Schuetz. And the inexperience showed.
“We had a horrible day offensively,” said Porter. “[Taylor Reed] is young, but he has to play better. And he needs help from the players around him.” Late in the first half, Reed completed a 46-yard pass to freshman Keiwone Malone down the left sideline, a play that gave the Tigers a first down at the Mustang 10-yard-line. A Foster carry gained nothing, though, and three straight incomplete passes by Reed gave the ball back to SMU with a zero still on the scoreboard for the home team. Reed completed 17 of 32 passes for the game, good for only 153 yards.
Porter said he never considered sending in reserve quarterback Andy Summerlin. “[Reed] is a fighter,” said Porter. “He’s a competitor. We’ve got to play better around him to give him a chance: the offensive line, receivers, everyone. They were beating us.”
The leading rusher in C-USA, Line finished the game with 136 yards on 20 carries. Darius Johnson caught 10 passes to lead SMU with 116 yards.
“It’s one mistake after the other,” said Porter. “Freshman center, freshman quarterback, two freshman receivers [Malone and Kevin Wright]. Even if we have to bleed and grind yardage, that’s okay. As long as it’s positive and gives us an opportunity to move the chains and sustain drives.” Memphis had only seven first downs (compared with 27 for SMU) and punted the ball 12 times, one shy of the record for the Tiger program.
“All four quarters, the attitude of our defense was phenomenal,” said Porter, grasping for a positive. “We had some guys I wanted to pull late in the fourth quarter, but they said no. And that says a lot. They did some solid things despite us not being able to do anything offensively.” Junior linebacker Akeem Davis recovered two fumbles and had an interception, while senior linebacker Terrence Thomas led Memphis with 13 tackles.
Now 1-3, the Tigers will play four of their next five games on the road, starting next week in Murfreesboro against Middle Tennessee (the only team the Tigers beat in 2010). SMU now finds itself 3-1 overall, 2-0 in Conference USA play. Quite possibly the program Larry Porter and staff should be aiming to emulate.