by J.R. Moorhead
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Over 39,000 fans filled the stands last Saturday (Sept. 1) to get their first glimpse of the newly renovated Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and the 2012 Memphis Tigers football team. Halfway through the third quarter, however, this first take was cut short for many because of a storm front that rolled through bringing lightening that forced a 90-minute delay.
That's not to say the entertainment stopped. With field security in hot pursuit, many students took turns running onto the field and sliding head first across the Memphis emblem at the fifty-yard line. Luckily for the students, the guards were doing a bunch more chasing, than catching.
Unfortunately, after the game finally got started again, the fun was all but over for the fans and the Tigers. Memphis was leading 10-7 when the storm hit, but UT-Martin wasn't ready to give up.
The Skyhawks scored on their first possession taking a14-10 lead. Memphis' offense stalled for much of the rest of the game. The Tigers went three and out more often than not, while the Skyhawks continued to drive down the field.
Memphis was able to stay in the game because UT-Martin had an early problem with converting field-goal attempts. Twice the Skyhawks' kicker, Cody Sandlin, missed the mark, and a fumbled snap led to another botched opportunity.
With the game on the line the fourth quarter with the game on the line, Sandlin came through for the Skyhawks to grow the lead to 17-10. This must have woken the Tigers up a bit, as they responded by driving right back down the field to score a touchdown and tie the game, 17-17.
On the next series, Memphis managed to hold UT-Martin to a punt and the Tigers were poised to get the ball back with about 30 seconds remaining in the game. The True Blue fans that stayed through the storm delays thought they might get a chance to see some late-game heroics from the home team. Would the Tigers be able to get a good return and get into field goal range, or connect on a last-second Hail Mary pass?
The stage was almost set. Then tragedy struck. The Memphis return man fumbled the punt and UT-Martin recovered the ball on the Memphis 26-yard line. The Skyhawks would now have a 43-yard field goal to win the game.
Knowing 43-yards isn't a chip shot, and having seen the opposing kicker already miss two field goals from shorter distances, Memphis fans were hopeful. Much to their dismay, Sandlin put it right through the uprights and Memphis was saddled with its first loss of the season.
This is definitely not how the Tigers and new head coach Justin Fuente wanted to begin the new era.
"I think that people have to understand where we are at and what we took over," Fuente has said. "I have not made crazy promises and outlandish guarantees."
Point well taken but here's the thing: Sure, the Tigers only won three games over the last two years. Fans realize that and they aren't expecting miracles, but losing to UT-Martin at home is unacceptable. They aren't even in a conference as large as C-USA. If Memphis can't even beat teams from lesser conferences, how are they going to compete in the Big East?
Fuente was brought here to change things for the better and losing last Saturday was a big step in the wrong direction.
Looking forward, Memphis heads to Jonesboro this Saturday (Sept. 8) to take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Tiger fans will look to see how Memphis responds after the opening-game disappointment. It isn't going to get any easier for the Tigers this year, and if they don't rebound this weekend, it could be a long season.