Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

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• Five minutes into the third quarter of last Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl, it appeared stories about the event would focus more on what was missing for Memphis — star receiver Damonte Coxie and a pass defense — than anything the Tigers actually did well on the field. Turns out, we saw the first huge win of the Ryan Silverfield era. In erasing a 35-14 deficit over the game's final 20 minutes, the Tigers established themselves as legitimate rivals to the UCF Knights (winners of the team's previous 13 meetings) and kept alive hopes of a fourth straight appearance in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
JOE MURPHY
  • Joe Murphy

Minus Coxie, Tiger quarterback Brady White merely earned Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors by passing for 486 yards and six touchdowns. The Ph.D. candidate made stars of Coxie's replacements, Calvin Austin hauling in nine passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, Tahj Washington catching seven passes for 131 yards. With 217 yards on the ground (112 courtesy Dreke Clark), Memphis managed to outscore an opponent the Tiger defense couldn't contain, that final, misdirected field-goal attempt by UCF's Daniel Obarski a rare 2020 blessing. An early-season comeback win does wonders for the collective psyche of a football team. When the Tigers find themselves down this Saturday, or the next Saturday, or the one after that … remember the UCF game.

The Temple game is one best served cold. It's hard to come up with a "revenge game"  following a 12-2 season like Memphis enjoyed in 2019. But had a late reception by Tiger tight end Joey Magnifico in Philadelphia last year not been ruled incomplete (after a dubious video review), Memphis may have pulled off an undefeated regular season. Instead the Tigers absorbed a two-point loss to the Owls and are now 2-3 against Temple since the programs became AAC rivals in 2013.

It seems silly, this being each team's third conference game of the season, but it's essentially a play-in game for the AAC championship. Each team is already saddled with a league loss (Temple fell to Navy), and it's highly unlikely that a two-loss team will play for the league title. The Owls can light up a scoreboard, but no more so than the UCF Knights. Another winnable home game for Memphis, with the trip to 9th-ranked Cincinnati looming. And yes, the Tigers have the revenge factor. Should be fun.

The Tigers will miss Damonte Coxie the rest of this season, but his decision to leave the program is understandable. Brady White's favorite target leaves the program with 185 career receptions (third in Memphis history) and 2,948 yards (also third). No team loses a playmaker like that without feeling some sting. But in the year 2020, fans (and columnists) require a form of empathy when it comes to prominent athletes that hasn't been called upon before. From major-league stars like Buster Posey to prominent college athletes like Coxie and Kansas running back Pooka Williams, athletes are "opting out" for reasons more personal than even they could have envisioned a year ago. And under pandemic conditions, it's really not anyone's business why a person feels called to priorities larger than a playing field.

I haven't had the chance to visit with Coxie about his decision. I know he and White have a friendship that runs deeper than football, one that will last, hopefully, the rest of their lives. Coxie emphasized, via social media, that he intends to earn his degree at the University of Memphis, not an incidental decision even for a man likely to put away some cash as an NFL receiver. Coxie was part of the greatest season in Tiger history and should be saluted for the impact he made for what is now one of the most prolific offenses in college football. As for the months ahead, in navigating his life with the coronavirus still running rampant, we must wish Coxie and his family all the best. And look forward to the next time we see him on a football field.

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