Injuries are to football as squabbles are to a marriage. It's not so much avoiding them but how they're handled that determines the strength of the enterprise. Considering the volume and severity of injuries that hit the University of Memphis football program in its first month of the 2005 season, we'll be learning much about the fortitude and backbone of Tommy West's program over the next two months. Based on the Tigers' performance last Saturday at the Liberty Bowl (a 27-20 victory over previously undefeated UTEP), this marriage appears to be growing through hardship.
It's important for followers of Tiger football to retain some perspective on the relative standing of the Memphis program. Despite two consecutive winning seasons followed by bowl appearances, despite the incomparable play of DeAngelo Williams, despite the growing number of national-television appearances, U of M football remains an enterprise with little margin for error. The talent factories in the SEC, Big 10, and Pac 10 can tap the third string of their depth chart without so much as a hiccup. (I recall seeing USC's LenDale White make a brilliant run against Oregon last month and thinking, This is the Trojans' third best player!?) When the U of M is forced to turn its offense over to a player (freshman quarterback Billy Barefield) who, by all rights, should be redshirting, the gridiron begins to tilt a bit uphill.
Memphis was outplayed by UTEP by every measure but the two most critical: turnovers and points. The Miners gave up the ball no fewer than four times inside the Tiger 30-yard line, offsetting a passing performance by quarterback Jordan Palmer (431 yards) that would have made his Heisman-winning brother, Carson, proud. UTEP had 21 plays that gained at least 10 yards (compared with 10 such plays for the Tigers). Were it not for a few clutch deflections by Memphis cornerbacks Dustin Lopez and Brandon McDonald, the game-winning pick by Derek Clenin in the closing minutes would have been merely incidental. If anything, the UTEP offense was too efficient, moving the ball too quickly. The Tigers, by running the ball 51 times compared with 21 passes, held the ball more than 36 minutes. Sometimes the best defense is keeping your defense off the field.
Of course, in a game won and lost by exposing weaknesses, the great equalizer is the resident superstar. The Williams highlight library has filled about four shelves of the Memphis film room, but in selecting his greatest runs, his 74-yard jaunt -- after taking a shotgun snap from center, mind you -- to give the Tigers a 17-6 lead late in the third quarter will be tough to top. Once through the line of scrimmage for what appeared to be a tidy five-yard gain, Williams cut right and simply ran by a half-dozen would-be tacklers -- a roadrunner through a field of helmeted coyotes. And credit to Barefield who, having split wide before the snap, threw a block 40 yards downfield to keep Williams in bounds on the play.
From the press box, it was astounding to see an opposing team -- recognizing the lack of a passing threat for the Tigers -- stack its defense to stop Williams, only to yield 236 yards to the nation's leading rusher. It gives the improvising U of M coaching staff hope for the weeks ahead, when they will be offering number 20 as their face card. Beat it if you can.
"We had a plan, offensively, for what we could do," said West during his post-game press conference, "and it was limited. But we stayed with it. We challenged our defense and our kicking game. And we didn't turn the ball over."
Looking beyond Williams' brilliance and Barefield's development, the new kids on the Conference USA block aren't making things any easier for the Tigers. The Tigers travel to Orlando this week to take on another C-USA newcomer, the Central Florida Golden Knights. After a winless 2004 season, UCF has won two straight and will host the Tigers with newfound momentum. Ask Memphis coach Tommy West, though, and you get the impression he's, well, happily married to his own program.
"I've had a chance to be around some really good wins in 26 years," he gushed, "and I believe this is as good as any win I've ever had. Our kids fought about as hard as you can fight. And if you keep handing it to [Williams], it doesn't look good sometimes, and they'll knock him down some, but he'll break one sooner or later."