It's one thing to go by the name Tank and quite another to play like one. Tiger senior linebacker Tank Jakes — at 5'11" and 227 pounds, there's some irony to the name — played the kind of game that can be packaged and delivered to NFL scouts as his own personal highlight reel. Jakes had six solo tackles, two sacks (one for a safety), a forced fumble, and an interception to all but seal the Tigers' second victory of the season. Playing in front of 46,378 fans (the Tigers' largest home crowd since 2006) Memphis displayed the same balanced offensive attack that hammered Austin Peay and almost upset UCLA.
"It was a great atmosphere," said Jakes. "My adrenaline was pumping. I play with an edge. I'm the smallest guy on the field at all times; people want to intimidate you. So I play with an edge. We had an extra week to prepare [for today's game], so we came out and did what we had to do."
Memphis ran 86 plays and piled up 480 yards in easily handling the Blue Raiders, a team that had won five of six meetings since the programs resumed playing in 2007. A Middle Tennessee offense that entered the game averaging 501 yards per contest was force to punt on four of its first six possessions, another of those possessions ending when Jakes sacked Blue Raider quarterback Austin Grammer in the end zone to give the Tigers a 9-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We had a great crowd, an active crowd," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente. "We had a crowd that wanted to help us win the football game. They helped us win. I'm awfully appreciative of that. We challenged [the team] to play with more discipline, and we did that. It certainly wasn't a perfect performance. But we were able to run the ball, make some plays with the passing game, and we played pretty darn good defense."
Fans weren't yet entirely through the gates when tight end Alan Cross caught a seven-yard pass from Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch to give Memphis a 7-0 lead 3:19 into the game. Jake Elliott's first field goal of the season and a 32-yard touchdown run by Doroland Dorceus extended the lead to 19-7 by halftime and gave the Tigers all the points they'd need.
Senior cornerback Bobby McCain picked up a Grammer fumble and sprinted 59 yards for a touchdown (the fourth of McCain's career) with 11:13 left to play in the game. The fumble was caused by Jakes, who then picked off a Grammer pass on the Blue Raiders' next possession.
Dorceus, Brandon Hayes, and Sam Craft combined to rush for 242 yards on 42 carries. Keiwone Malone caught six passes for 76 yards, and Cross added a 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the fourth quarter to help pad Lynch's numbers for the game (21 of 35 for 219 yards and two touchdowns). The Tigers did not allow a sack, while the Memphis defense took Grammer down five times.
"Each week is a new challenge," said Fuente. "I think we accounted for ourselves well tonight. But it's a long season, and we have to keep getting better."
On the subject of the game's standout performance: "[Tank Jakes] is a good football player. He understands the game. He's very heady. He can get into cracks and crevices to make plays."
Fuente acknowledged his defense virtually shutting down Middle Tennessee's running game (88 yards on 34 carries), forcing a one-dimensional attack that the faster, gap-closing Tigers were able to nullify. "We were able to get some pressure when bringing just three guys," he said. "We can mix up some looks on teams if there's one part of the game you don't have to worry about as much."
The crowd was the eighth-largest the Tigers have hosted when playing a team not from the mighty SEC. "Our administration has done a fantastic job of making things accessible," said Fuente, "and attracting people. The crowd played a big role on third down. We're taking a step toward making this a tough place to play."
Memphis is assured of entering October with a .500 record for the first time since 2004. Now 2-1, the Tigers travel to Oxford next Saturday to take on 10th-ranked Ole Miss. The two programs haven't met since 2009, but Ole Miss has won the last five meetings and nine of the last eleven.