• It’s hard to measure the progress of a quarterback without a few wins in the mix. Still looking for his first victory over an FBS opponent, freshman Taylor Reed is still in the embryonic stage of his college career. But the 19-year-old from El Dorado, Arkansas, is showing promise in trying conditions. Let’s remember he was called into duty in the opener against Mississippi State after an ankle injury to starting quarterback Andy Summerlin. On top of that, the Tigers’ top running threat — Jerrell Rhodes — left the same game with an injury. On top of that — jeesh! — the U of M’s most experienced receiver, Marcus Rucker, has been on the sideline the last two games with his own injury. Here’s the ball, rookie. Win us some games.
Tiger coach Larry Porter puts a premium on decision-making with his quarterback. Less interested in seeing the spectacular, Porter wants his quarterback to avoid the disastrous. Over his five games behind center, Reed has thrown 158 passes and only one interception. The most promising stat from the Middle Tennessee game last week were the 23 first downs for the Tigers (a season high). Reed ran an offense that steadily gained yardage — even on the ground — and reached pay dirt four times (another season high). The return of A.J. Antonescu at center was a major booster, as Reed wasn’t sacked (a week after going down four times against SMU). As for Reed’s tools, the fourth-quarter touchdown pass he lofted to Keiwone Malone was as pretty a toss as we’ll see all season. This lefty may be a keeper.
• The Tigers rank 11th in Conference USA in total offense (297.2 yards per game). This week’s foe, Rice, ranks 9th (305.2). Memphis ranks 10th in total defense (524), two slots ahead of the Owls (549.8). The Tigers will welcome back Rhodes against a team that is last in C-USA against the run (272). Looking at the rest of the schedule, this is one of two games the Tigers could win that wouldn’t be considered a monumental upset. (The other is a home tilt against UAB on November 12th. The Blazers are actually averaging fewer points per game than the Tigers.) Porter needs to pull out every motivational trick he may have learned as an assistant at LSU and treat this game like a season-shifter. Win and the Tiger faithful have something positive to lean on entering a home game next week (against East Carolina). Lose, and we’re likely staring at a 1-8 record before UAB comes to town.
• In times of struggle, we have to count small blessings, even those that go unseen. One game that will go unseen in 2011 is Memphis vs. Houston. Led by record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum (no, he’s not a Heisman candidate; not as long as he’s playing in C-USA), the 5-0 Cougars are averaging 45.2 points and 610 yards per game. If Keenum were given an afternoon against the Tiger defense, there may not be a scoreboard operator in the country with fingers quick enough to tally the numbers. (Remember, Houston beat Memphis 56-17 a year ago . . . without Keenum.)