After this week, the University of Memphis Tigers will have reached the halfway point of the 2013-14-football campaign. Most would agree the Tigers have made steady progress throughout the year.
The improvement noted, Memphis (1-4) took on the Southern Methodist University Mustangs and found the Tigers' strength – defense – under siege at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last Saturday (Oct. 19).
Translation: Two steps forward encountered three steps back and ultimately resulted in a 34-29 setback.
Going into the game, Memphis' defensive unit had been great at defending the run, but the Mustangs are more of a pass-oriented offense. The first half was so abysmal (31 to 3 SMU) that head coach Justin Fuente opened his post-game comments with an apology to the fans about "how (Memphis) played in the first half."
The elements for getting into such a daunting first-half hole included a stagnant offense, a costly fumble by the Tigers deep in their own territory and a missed field goal. Visibly upset after time ran out on the second quarter, Fuente huddled the Tigers up and appeared to give them an ear full before heading to the locker room.
The second half might have been the most awkward 30 minutes of football played this season. With a large lead, SMU went away from its pass-happy offense and took to trying to grind the ball on the ground. If the goal was to eat up clock, it backfired, as Memphis' stout run -defense was able to limit the Mustangs to short possessions.
Yet, the Tigers' offense continued to sputter. The offensive line wasn't holding the line of scrimmage and that prevented Memphis from trying to take shots down the field. The Tigers, however, still managed to score points.
Junior linebacker Ryan Coleman recovered two fumbles and returned both for scores. One of the fumbles was a straight strip of SMU running back Traylon Shead. In a dominating display, Coleman ripped the ball loose while Shead was still upright and trying to advance.
Another big defensive play by sophomore Regis Ball led to another Memphis touchdown. Ball's 94-yard interception return for an apparent touchdown was negated because he dove into the end zone from the 1-yard line in a celebratory manner. Luckily for Ball, the offense was still able to punch it on for a score.
Trailing 34-23 late in the game, Memphis still needed two scores to record a comeback victory. The Tigers moved the ball down the field as time ticked down, but the Mustangs were able to contain any big plays. Memphis scored a touchdown as time expired, but it was too little, too late.
The five-point margin of victory was somewhat of an illusion. The game clearly wasn't that close, especially with offense's glaring problems. Fuente, however, wasn't about to place blame on any one aspect.
"We have plenty of issues," he said.
"My sense is it is a combination of several things. It's a developing offensive line; it's some young skill players, receivers and running backs that show flashes of playing really well and flashes that make you want to pull your hair out."
The True Blue Nation feels his pain.
The next potential headache comes Wednesday (Oct. 30). The Tigers have a long week to prepare for another home game, this one against Cincinnati. The game between the Tigers (1-5) and the Bearcats (5-2) will be aired on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.