The good news last Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is that the Memphis Tigers scored 21 points against the top-ranked defense in Conference USA. The bad news, of course, is that the U of M gave up 21 points to a UCF offense ranked dead last in C-USA. Add in a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Knight linebacker Derrick Hallman, and the result was a 28-21 UCF victory, leaving Memphis with a record of 5-6 — and this Saturday's game with Tulane as the Tigers' final chance at gaining bowl eligibility for the fifth time in six seasons.
"We helped them to 14 points in the first half," mused Tiger coach Tommy West after the game, "and that ended up being the reason we didn't win the game. I'm disappointed that we made the errors early in the game that put us behind."
The errors West spoke of were made by Tiger quarterback Arkelon Hall, who had been on the sidelines since breaking his thumb at East Carolina more than a month earlier. In fairness, Hall's first "error" was committed not with the arm that earned him a scholarship, but with his right foot. After Brent Sutherland shanked his first punt of the game, West entrusted Hall with the fourth-down duty, even with the Tigers deep in their own territory. The ensuing "pooch" kick met the backside of a Tiger lineman and deflected toward the Tiger end zone. Four plays later, Knight quarterback Rob Calabrese connected with Ricky Kay for a 7-0 UCF lead, one the Tigers couldn't close for the rest of the game. (Hall's second miscue of the quarter was that fumble that resulted in a 14-0 deficit, still not 10 minutes into the game.)
Other than a perfectly thrown 54-yard touchdown to Duke Calhoun (also in the first quarter), the game was entirely forgettable for Hall. With three 350-yard games already on his resume, Hall misfired on 20 of 35 attempts, compiling only 183 yards through the air.
"I knew defensively that they're good," West said, "and yards were hard to come by. [Hall] made a couple of bad throws ... . And he missed [Earnest Williams] across the middle for a touchdown. Now, he certainly helped us running the ball. But I'm not going to sit here and act like that was his best game."
When asked if Hall's thumb had bothered him, West dismissed the notion as a possible excuse, and he rejected the thought of replacing Hall with Brett Toney, the primary stand-in in Tiger wins over Southern Miss and SMU. "Brett's just not that kind of guy," West said. "When you have to start coming back in a game, I don't think that's Brett's deal."
UCF has become an annual nemesis for the Tigers. The Knights have now won four straight over the U of M. And this was a team that entered the game with a record of 3-7. The Tigers outgained the visitors, 305 yards to 194, and ran 74 plays compared with 59 for UCF. But Memphis converted merely four of 16 third-down plays, shortening drives on an afternoon when the ball quite literally bounced the wrong way for a home crowd that numbered only 18,836.
"We had plenty of chances," West noted. "We helped them a lot today. We spotted them 14 points. You can cut it any way you want to, but that's why we lost the game."
Back to the good news: This Saturday's opponent will be the 2-9 Tulane Green Wave, a team that has lost seven straight and given up at least 35 points in their last five contests. The Tigers have won four straight in this series, and a fifth would end their regular season at 6-6. Conference USA's bowl partners include the Armed Forces Bowl (Forth Worth), the Texas Bowl (Houston), and the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl, each a destination that would be welcomed by a team that, after 11 games, is caught between the bad news of disappointment and the good news of opportunity.