Last Friday night I worked the yardage chains for a high school game between TSSAA Division 2A Bishop Byrne and Mississippi Division 5A Southaven. Division 2A is in its first year of existence in Tennessee and comprises the state's smallest private schools. Division 5A is Mississippi's largest school category.
Since the game was at Bishop Byrne, the chains were on the Southaven side of the field, giving me the satisfaction of listening to the Southaven players and fans scream in despair for three quarters as their team struggled with the smaller squad. (Full disclosure: I'm a Bishop Byrne grad.) In the fourth quarter Southaven's wishbone offense finally started to wear down the exhausted line of BBHS, because most of Byrne's linemen played both ways.
Southaven pulled away in the fourth, allowing crowd and players alike to breathe a sigh of relief as they piled on 22 points in the fourth quarter for a sloppy win. Here's my question: Did Southaven gain anything from the experience, other than a mark in the win column?
At all levels of football, the idea of playing a smaller or larger squad is a common practice. Collegiately it can give the smaller school a good cash bonus from TV proceeds. It also allows the small squad to play a tough opponent, making the rest of the schedule easier in comparison. Such games allow the larger school to flex its muscles, loosen any early season kinks and get some confidence.
That was the goal for the University of Memphis as it played NCAA Division I AA University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. While the offense clicked to the tune of a 43-10 victory, the defense took a definite step backward, contributing to most of the squad's appalling 13 penalties for 110 yards. Worse, three of those penalties were in the Tigers' red zone, leading to the only Mocs touchdown. The Tiger offense fared significantly better, putting up hefty numbers as running back Dante Brown ran 18 times for 158 yards and one touchdown while also catching one TD strike from Travis Anglin. Anglin also put on a show, passing 15-22 for 145 yards and two TDs and running 17 times for 78 yards and two scores.
More important than just padding stats, the game allowed the coaching staff to see exactly what it has. Brown is in his first year out of JUCO Middle Georgia College and is still the new guy, though Tiger head coach Tommy West did recruit him for Clemson. Also positive is Anglin's passing efficiency (21-29, first in C-USA) and his running yardage, which ranks eighth in C-USA.
But what to say about that defense? What should be the Tigers' strong suit has so far been its Joker. The coaching staff emphasized the point with this week's MVP awards. While Brown deservedly pulled the honors for offense and frosh punter James Gaither earned the nod for special teams, no defensive player found his way to the honor. Senior linebacker DeMorrio Shank says that no one deserved it. "We didn't play as well as we felt we should have," he says. "It wouldn't be good to pick a standout player on defense because there really weren't any. We could have improved at all areas of defense."
Those are harsh words for a defense that allowed only 10 points, 30 yards rushing, and 201 yards passing against pass-crazy UTC. But according to Shank, he and the rest of the defense know their efforts were not good enough. "We set a higher standard for ourselves," he says. "We know what we can be. We're not doing the things we can do. We have to keep our heads in the game. We have to keep poised. We're a blue-collar football team and we didn't play that way Saturday."
West was also very unhappy with the defense's performance, though he says he has gained some perspective. "I probably feel a little better about the game now, after reviewing the tape," he says. However, "I would have felt better without all the penalties."
West notes that the penalties kept the Mocs in the first half of the game, not the Tiger defense giving up passes. "We kept a bunch of their drives alive," West says.
West doesn't have much else to say about the penalties. He knows that the Memphis defense is experienced enough to fix itself by the Tigers' next game against upstart South Florida, which beat Pittsburgh last week in only its eighth Division IA game. In the week off, West is still concentrating on his offense, whose prodigious effort this past week shadows some deficiencies. "We're inconsistent at wide receiver, from a blocking standpoint," he says. "I don't think they understand when you are a target or potential target and when you are a decoy." West wants Anglin to run. That means reading his first option, and then taking off if that isn't there. The Tiger offense features three to five receivers, so they have to do their job to keep defenses honest, giving Anglin room for his short passing game. That in turn should open the field to allow for longer gains from both the passing and running games.
Probably the most positive thing about the UM/UTC romp has nothing to do with the score. The coach and the staff know that their mistakes could have cost them a game against most Division IA teams and that they need to get it in gear to have a chance to be one of C-USA's four bowl bids. If the team can learn from the UTC experience, that's more important than the win itself.