With several seasons of not-very-good football a glaring part of the University of Memphis Tigers' recent past, it was noteworthy that Tiger Lane was teaming with tailgating grounds fans ready to see Memphis take on the Duke Blue Devils at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium this past weekend.
Going into the season's opening game, there were some tangible reasons for optimism. The Tigers finished last season with three straight wins and looked like a much-improved team. And under the direction of second-year head coach Justin Fuente there has been a very positive buzz building around the program over the off season.
Memphis's transition from Conference USA to the new American Athletic Conference (a collaboration of the dissolved Big East and a few other programs from around the country) has been another source of excitement for the Tiger faithful.
Like most teams, Duke began its 2013-14 season the previous weekend, smashing North Carolina Central 45-0. While a dominant performance against a lesser opponent, Memphis fans were not phased as over 44,000 fans shook aside the heat and poured into the stadium to back the Tigers.
The Blue Devils would strike first with a rushing touchdown just over three minutes into the first quarter taking a 7-0 lead. Memphis' offense really wasn't able to get anything going early and a questionable spot on a failed fourth-and-one attempt seemed to deflate the Tigers' offensive efforts.
It seemed as though the defense was going to have to provide a spark for Memphis and that's just what happened. Cornerback Bobby McCain intercepted a Duke pass fifteen seconds into the second quarter and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown, leveling the score at 7-7. And it would remain a tie for the rest of the first half.
Duke again struck first in the second half with another rushing touchdown (14-7), but the Tigers didn't fold. Early in the fourth quarter an 11-yard rushing touchdown from Jai Steib knotted the game again (14-14).
Duke dashed Memphis' hopes for an opening-game victory by scoring two unanswered touchdowns during the last 10 minutes of the game and took the win 28-14. Still, the Tigers looked vastly improved from the team that lost 38 to14 to the Blue Devils a year ago.
"We played a good football team today that we had a chance to beat and we just weren't there yet," said coach Fuente.
NOTE: On Saturday (Sept. 14), Memphis takes on the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders in Murfreesboro.