It took 32 years, seven hires, and a university name change, but a man can walk the earth — at least for two weeks — and tell anyone who will listen that he is undefeated as the head football coach at the University of Memphis. Mike Norvell
(two years old when Rey Dempsey won his Tiger debut in 1984) paced the Liberty Bowl hatless, unlike his recent predecessors Justin Fuente, Larry Porter, and Tommy West. But he delivered on a fast-paced offense and quick-to-close defense, the Tigers easily handling FCS foe Southeast Missouri State. It may not have been Ole Miss or Mississippi State on the other sideline, but Norvell likes the sound of "1-0."
"We started really fast," Norvell said to open his postgame comments. "I liked the way the guys competed. We turned the ball over three times in the first half, and we can't do that. It looked like a Game 1. We've got a bye week with plenty of things to work on. I like the way we started the game; we just have to make sure we maintain that for a full 60 minutes."
With the fan base's collective mood sagging after a Friday report that Memphis has been removed from consideration for Big 12 expansion, the Tigers delivered some temporary salve with the win. Led by junior quarterback Riley Ferguson
— making his FBS debut — Memphis drove 75 yards in just 2:17 after receiving the opening kickoff to take an 8-0 (yes, 8-0) lead. Ferguson hit another Tiger rookie — freshman running back Darrell Henderson
— on a 15-yard pass play for the season's first touchdown. The Tigers followed with a trick play, wideout Anthony Miller
tossing a short pass to tight end Daniel Montiel
for a two-point conversion. You had the impression that if an option for three points after the touchdown existed, Norvell would have taken it.
Tailback Doroland Dorceus
scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first quarter, the first on a 3-yard run to complete a 73-yard drive, then a 13-yard reception after Tiger cornerback Arthur Maulet
intercepted a pass by SEMO's backup quarterback, Dante Vandeven. (Jesse Hoskett re-entered on SEMO's next series and played the rest of the game.) A 23-yard Ferguson-to-Henderson connection midway through the second quarter essentially put the game away for Memphis. SEMO's Ryan McCrum hit a 26-yard field goal to make the score 29-3 at halftime, and Will Young galloped for a 61-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, but the Redhawks didn't close within 20 points until an Adrian Davis touchdown catch with 3:25 left on the clock.
Ferguson finished with 26 completions in 40 attempts for 295 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. "We executed pretty good at the beginning," he said. "I made some mistakes, made some throws I shouldn't have. We'll be fine. It felt good being back on the field. I had a little bit of nerves, but that first drive helped. We're 1-0 and that was our main goal. Just gotta get read for Kansas [on September 17th] now. I'm blessed to be here. It's an unbelievable opportunity."
Junior wideout Anthony Miller
led the Tigers with nine catches for 103 yards. (He also averaged 11.0 yards on three punt returns.) The Memphis rushing attack was supplementary at best, a late 51-yard jaunt by Patrick Taylor
almost doubling the team's total.
Defensively, the Tigers held SEMO to 253 yards and allowed only four third-down conversions on 15 such plays. When asked about the unit's focus entering the game, Maulet emphasized "execute." "Get the play and communicate," he added. "When we communicate and all 11 are on the same play, we're gonna stop everybody. That was the biggest thing."
Maulet also acknowledged the boost the Tiger defense gets from the pace of the team's offense. "It helps us. I don't know how many plays the other team had , but we weren't even tired because how high the tempo is in practice."
The Liberty Bowl crowd of 42,876 was actually larger than the the one that saw last year's opener (41,730). After a bye week, the Tigers will host their next two games, against the Jayhawks (of the Big 12, mind you) and Bowling Green (September 24th). The Mike Norvell Era has officially begun in Memphis. Whatever the conference affiliation, winning sells tickets. So consider the 2016 season off to the right start.
"I'm so very grateful for this opportunity," said Norvell. "If you want to see what college football is all about, come to the Tiger Walk. That was one of the most impressive things I've ever been a part of, and I've coached at many places. You pull up and see a sea of blue. We understand everything we do on the field represents this community."