Three Thoughts on Tiger Football


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• Last Thursday's game with Cincinnati featured 17 kickoffs. The Tigers and Bearcats combined for nine punts and six field-goal attempts. In a game that featured 99 points and was decided by a single (late) touchdown, special teams were on the field for 32 plays. Had even one of those plays gone dramatically sour for the Tigers, the outcome may have been different. So it's less a surprise than you might think that Memphis punter Spencer Smith was named the American Athletic Conference's Special Teams Player of the Week for his contributions to a game in which his team scored 53 points. Smith averaged 52.7 yards on his six kicks, one of them a 72-yard missile that redefined "flipping the field.
" Smith followed punt-returner Roderick Proctor (Week 1) and kicker Jake Elliott (Week 3) in earning special recognition from the AAC. Memphis coach Justin Fuente has told me on multiple occasions that special teams may not win a game, but they sure can lose one. Fact is, Memphis would not be 4-0 without the play of its special teams this season. 

The Memphis defense has been just this side of dreadful, especially the last two weeks. To its credit, it held late against both Bowling Green and Cincinnati to clinch victories for the Tigers. What's wrong? The answer is as obvious as the names of the Tiger defensive players are not. Eight new starters are learning their way in game conditions and have been confronted with two of the country's best offensive teams. Combine these two factors and there will be some gaps in coverage (ask Bowling Green's Roger Lewis) and video-game numbers on the postgame stat sheet (752 yards gained by Cincinnati). This is where a fan base must show trust in Fuente (and defensive coordinator Galen Scott). Surely they see something in the likes of Dion Witty (eight solo tackles against the Bearcats) and Shareef White (four solos and a tackle-for-loss) that has the players on the field in the first place. It's often said that an offensive unit needs time (and games) to gel, to find its way as an 11-man operation. Same goes for a defense. Expect progress — starting this Friday night — or changes with some of those names on the field.

• I was uncomfortable with such a suggestion last season, but I'll share it now: This week's opponent is one the Tigers should handle. South Florida is coming off a bye week, but lost its last two games by 20 points (Florida State) and 18 (a Maryland team that lost to Bowling Green by 21). The Bulls average "only" 27.3 points per game (the Tigers' figure is ridiculous: 53.8). USF is second in the AAC, though, in total defense, allowing 344.7 yards per game (the Memphis offense is averaging 570.2). Tailback Marlon Mack (5.4 yards per carry) will lead the USF attack and I'm just not convinced that offense can outscore Memphis. If Paxton Lynch continues to be protected — he's been sacked only four times in four games — the Tigers have too many weapons. Look for a third straight Tiger win in this series, and a 5-0 mark for the bye week ahead of . . . Ole Miss.

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