If you're a University of Memphis football fan in need of some tidbit to suggest that better times are ahead for a squad with seven losses and one win, I've got a place you can start.
Although the Tigers have had their fair share of growing pains, it hasn't been all bad for Memphis. When one looks at the team as a whole, improvements aren't that hard to find. In fact, thus far into the 2012 season, Memphis is even or better in 24 of the 37 statistical categories the NCAA uses to measure a team's performance as compared to last year.
The most-improved award would go to the defense, which is only allowing 413 yards a game in contrast to the 499 yards a game a year ago. This season, the Tigers rank 78th in total defense out of 119 NCAA division I-A teams. Their rank isn't that impressive, but considering Memphis was ranked 117th last year, it becomes easier to see the tangible improvement.
The Tigers' games have followed an eerily familiar pattern this season. Memphis plays their opponents close in the first half, only to come out and get blown away in the second half. The second-half meltdowns are due largely to turnovers and penalties.
More specifically, fumbles have been the main cause of the Tigers' woes. Memphis had 16 giveaways – 14 fumbles among them – before a 44-13 drubbing by Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas last Saturday (Oct. 27). That is an average of two fumbles a game and ranks the Tigers 117th in fumbles lost. Again, there are only 119 teams. Add in the two times Memphis coughed up the ball against and the Tigers move even closer to the bottom of the barrel.
With four games remaining, the Tigers have to shift their focus to their second road trip in as many weeks as they head to Huntington, W.Va. to take on Marshall. The defense will have its hands full against Marshall's high-tempo offense. The Mustangs average 543 yards a game. And, said UofM head coach Justin Fuente, they "score points by the bunches."
There's a plain and simple key to defensive success for the Tigers this weekend (Nov. 3) – Memphis' running game.
"We have to do a great job of running the football and giving our guys on the other side of the ball (defense) an opportunity to rest," Fuente said.
If the Tigers struggle early trying to run the ball and fall behind, the offense will be forced to throw more often. Short possessions for the Memphis offense means more time for Marshall's Thundering Herd offense to run up the score.
"If you're not careful, those are the types of things that can mount up on you in a game like that," said Fuente. "It's going to be a team challenge."