If character is doing the right thing when nobody's watching, pride must be playing college football with very little to gain. Having seen their high hopes of a first Conference USA championship go up in smoke in a 17-16 defeat at Marshall last weekend, the Memphis Tigers are now staring at nine games and a steep climb to respectability. With two conference losses already and the program's first 0-3 start in a decade, silver linings are hard to come by. But we'll give it a shot.
For the first time this season, Memphis held its opponent under 40 points. But considering the Thundering Herd still amassed more than 400 yards of total offense, this was more a reflection of Marshall's offensive ineptitude than it was any solidifying of the Tiger defense. On the offensive side of the ball, the U of M passing attack is proving to be as dangerous as advertised. Quarterback Arkelon Hall threw for 364 yards a week after compiling 373 against Rice. Junior Carlos Singleton was on the receiving end of 11 passes, good for 158 yards. But despite all the aerial movement, Memphis reached the end zone but once (on a four-yard pass from backup quarterback Will Hudgens to Earnest Williams).
More silver linings? The Tigers held the ball slightly longer than did Marshall. They committed fewer penalties and had 10 more first downs (26 to 16) than did their opponent. All of which makes Coach Tommy West's job that much more difficult in identifying how quickly the 2008 season turned sour and how he and his staff might find some sweetener for the two-plus months of season that remain.
Next up, Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, is the Tigers' annual schedule-filler against the "Football Championship Subdivision" (formerly Division I-AA) competition. Instead of Chattanooga or Tennessee Tech, Nicholls State comes to town in what will be the Colonels' season opener, their first two games having been postponed by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The closest thing to a creampuff Memphis will see this fall, Nicholls State may be salve to a wounded collective psyche on the Tiger side of the field. If ever West has needed a week to experiment with his depth chart and make some in-game alterations, this will be the one. But the home crowd — will there be as many as 30,000 to see if the Tigers can scratch the win column? — had better not count any chickens with these Colonels in town. A year ago, this team beat the Rice Owls — which, yes, beat Memphis two weeks ago.
Wins are accumulated one at a time, of course. Schedule-gazing and dreaming of brighter lights are afterthoughts for the 2008 Tigers. Now, it's simply a matter of pride.
• Considering how high Memphis Tiger basketball has risen in the nation's Q ratings, the upcoming home schedule has to be considered a disappointment. After a 2007-08 season that welcomed Arizona, Georgetown, Tennessee, and Gonzaga to FedExForum, the upcoming season's nonconference home highlights will be Massachusetts, Syracuse, and Cincinnati. While the Tigers will face the Vols and Zags again on the road, Lamar is the only nonconference opponent visiting Memphis after New Year's Day. And while UMass will carry sentimental value — as Coach John Calipari's former stomping grounds, now under the guidance of longtime Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg — the Tigers will be considerable favorites, just as they will against the Orange and the Bearcats.
Frank Murtaugh writes the "From My Seat" column for memphisflyer.com.