When God (or Bear Bryant, I'm not sure which) invented football, the first commandment handed down was the following: "Thou shalt not turn the ball over inside the opponent's 10-yard-line." When the Memphis Tigers committed this sin not once, but twice in their 2007 season opener Saturday against Ole Miss, their penalty was a 20-0 halftime deficit that proved too much to overcome, even with a spirited second-half comeback fueled by a record-setting passing attack and a Tiger defense that stood toe-to-toe with an SEC offensive line and came away with a notch in its belt.
"I had no idea that our football team would play like it did in the first 40 minutes of this game," said coach Tommy West after the contest. "I never saw it coming. That's as bad as I've ever had a team play since I've been here. It was embarrassing. It's my responsibility. We can't play any worse than that, I know.
Had Miguel Barnes not fumbled at the Rebel 8-yard-line late in the first quarter and had Tiger quarterback Martin Hankins not been intercepted at the Rebel 1-yard-line (a pass that was returned 99 yards for a touchdown by Ole Miss cornerback Dustin Mouzon, the final score of 23-21 may well have been reversed, if not padded in the home team's favor. (Add a blocked-punt also returned for six points by the Rebs and Memphis really had three game-turning plays in a single afternoon.)
As a result of the early deficit, Memphis was forced to take flight with its offense, which led to quarterback Martin Hankins establishing new school records for attempts (60, tying Danny Wimprine's mark) and completions (41, shattering Wimprine's standard of 32) in a game. Among the most obvious silver linings to the loss was the performance of the much-ballyhooed Tiger receiving corps. Maurice Jones averaged almost nine yards for his five catches. Skyscraping Carlos Singleton (he's 6'8") hauled in eight passes for 91 yards, including a pair of jumpballs Hankins must have thrown 10 feet in the air. And sophomore Duke Calhoun -- the prince of this bunch -- pulled down 10 passes for 87 yards, scoring twice (once for a touchdown, once for a two-point conversion) on well-executed cut-back screens. Were it not for the four extra completions Hankins had -- to Ole Miss defenders -- the Tigers' Davey O'Brien Award candidate would have earned top billing for the opener.
Considering only nine of the Rebels' 23 points were scored against the U of M's defensive unit, that top billing actually goes to the run stoppers and pass defenders who held Ole Miss to 275 total yards (a fraction of the Tigers' 467). It's unlikely Memphis will face an offensive line as massive as the Ole Miss unit (average weight: 321 pounds), combined with a tailback as talented as BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,000 rushing yards a season ago, including 127 in the opener against Memphis). With linebacker Winston Bowens and end Greg Terrell leading the way, the Tigers held Ole Miss to a total of 74 rushing yards. A pair of early drive-extending penalties were the most damaging marks against new defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz's crew.
"I'm extremely proud of our defense," noted West, who actually came as close to ebullience during his postgame comments as you'll see from a coach on the wrong end of the final score. "They played their tails off, the whole game."
It was the other side of the line of scrimmage where West sees the most room for improvement. "I'm not pleased with the play of our offensive line," he noted. "The difference in the game was we couldn't block their defensive line on the pass rush. That's not gonna be us."
With all that went wrong Saturday afternoon, and yet still almost made right by the steady defensive play and offensive resolve, Tiger fans have every reason to believe nine-game losing streaks are a distant memory. "This could be a pretty good football team," stressed West. "That game was fixing to get out of hand, and our kids wouldn't let it. I'm never happy when we lose. But we looked like what I thought we could look like over the last 20 minutes of the game. With six turnovers? We shouldn't have a chance to win the game with six turnovers."
One game down and 11 to go for the 2007 Memphis Tigers. Which brings us back to that football scripture, and our second commandment: "Thou shalt not dwell on last week's defeat."