• Like most sportswriters, I can grow addicted to statistics. Lies, damn lies, and such. But there is one football figure I’ve come to consider as revealing as a concrete wall: time of possession. TV analysts inevitably turn to “TOP” as one of those game-shifting variables, along with turnovers, penalties, and third-down conversions.
In their game at East Carolina on October 13th, the Tigers held the ball for 33:41, fully seven minutes longer than the Pirate offense. ECU, of course, won the game. By 34 points. The Pirates scored often, and they scored quickly. Try this stat: East Carolina averaged 1.5 points per minute of possession (Memphis averaged .2 per minute).
Last Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers again “won” the TOP battle, holding the ball for 31:53. And they lost by 18 points.
The U of M runs the ball. Against UCF, they had 45 rushes and 28 pass attempts. (For the season the respective figures are 276 and 179.) This strategy helps kill the clock, and against superior talent it may well be the smartest approach. But does TOP suggest the winning team? By no means.
• My favorite sequence of plays this season came during the third quarter of the UCF loss. Snapping the ball from their own 27 yard-line, the Tigers faked a punt, with Tom Hornsey striding down the left side of the field for a 21-yard gain and a first down. At the time, Memphis only trailed UCF by four points. The play required risk, deception, and more than a little heart.
On the next play, quarterback Jacob Karam heaved the ball downfield, only to have it picked off inside the UCF 10 by the Knights’ A.J. Bouye (who returned the ball 32 yards). Nonetheless, I liked the call, a proactive strike against a superior team at a point when the game could have been swung to favor the underdogs.
I remain convinced we’re seeing the bottled version of Justin Fuente’s offensive scheme. He’s steering this boat as the winds of talent allow. Let’s hope a few years from now, a fake punt followed by a bomb toward the end zone doesn’t feel all that unusual.
• For the second straight week, the Tigers face a C-USA rival that will be joining Memphis in the Big East next season. And I love SMU being on the U of M football radar. This is a program that gave us Doak Walker, Don Meredith (a hero of my dad’s), and Eric Dickerson. Associated by many with the only “death penalty” ever dealt by the NCAA (for transgressions during the Dickerson years), the Mustangs deserve better historically.
As for Saturday’s game, will the Tigers see the team handled by Texas A & M, 48-3? Or the team that beat Houston last week, 72-42? Last season at the Liberty Bowl, SMU rolled to a 42-0 win. Tailback Zach Line ran for 136 yards in that game, scoring three touchdowns. Line leads C-USA in rushing this year with 717 yards.