It was supposed to be the perfect day to start the season for the 2017 Memphis Tigers football team. Fans were planning to leave work early to fill Tiger Lane and enjoy the first of seven tailgates for this season. Lots of ribs, burgers, beer and bourbon were to be consumed and a lackluster day at the office on Friday was to be expected, because, well, Tiger Football is back baby! Predictions for the crowd were such that well over 40,000 blue-clad fans would be in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium watching the high-octane Mike Norvell offense and the improved defense. Riley Ferguson was supposed to connect with Anthony Miller for a couple long scores, and maybe even Pop Williams or Damonte Coxie just to show that they can live up to the preseason hype. The Tigers would pad their season scoring average by putting 55-plus points on the scoreboard in a blowout win over an inferior opponent.
However, none of that happened.
Instead Memphis was hit with the remnants of Hurricane Harvey for most of the day Thursday and throughout the game Thursday night. There were tornado warnings and flash floods, more than 10,000 citizens lost their electricity. Tiger Lane was empty, with a few clusters of fans trying to brave the elements and show their appreciation for the hard work the Tigers have put in over the summer. Instead of the massive crowd, the announced attendance was 10,263 fans, who, by most accounts were miserable in the cold, steady downpour. Riley Ferguson went 10-25 on pass attempts for just 97 yards, the long play being a 23 yard pass to Miller, who finished with only 23 yards on 2 receptions. The passing game was never able to find the groove Tiger fans had become so used to seeing throughout last season, mainly because of the weather conditions. Several defensive starters including Genard Avery, Jackson Dillon, Darian Porter, and Jared Gentry, along with running back Doroland Dorceus suffered injuries throughout the game, to what extent we do not yet know, while starting defensive lineman, Jonathan Wilson, was ejected for targeting and will miss the first half of next week’s game. And to top it all off, the game ended with Louisiana Monroe pulling within one score before failing to recover the onside kick and the Tigers going into the victory formation for a 37-29 season opening win.
And that’s what matters in the big picture, going 1-0 and turning the focus to the first conference game next week at Central Florida. No matter how hard the coaches tried to emulate the conditions of last night’s game, Mother Nature made it difficult to play all aspects of the game.
There were plenty of bright spots throughout the game. Patrick Taylor, the sophomore from the Houston area, opened the scoring with a 66 yard touchdown run and finished with 132 rushing yards. Fellow sophomore running back Darrell Henderson had touchdown runs on 55 and 63 yards, and finished with 169 yards on just 12 carries.
To open the second half, redshirt sophomore Tony Pollard returned the wet football 99 yards for a touchdown, marking his 3rd such feat in his Tigers career and putting the Tigers in control of the game at 27-7. This also made fans who purchased jewelry at Robert Irwin Jewelers happy campers, as the store had been running a promotion that stated if the Tigers returned their opening kickoff (The Tigers won the coin toss and deferred to the second half) the store would provide full refunds to customers who purchased anything in the two weeks leading up to the home opener.
On the defensive side of the ball Curtis Akins seemed to be involved in every play, ending the game with 9 solo tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 pass breakups. Redshirt sophomore Austin Hall had 6 tackles and a highlight reel interception that showed us some of the athleticism that linebackers coach, Joe Lorig, has raved about in the preseason. The Tigers also recovered 3 fumbles to win the turnover battle 4-2. The new look secondary remains a mystery, as the entire defensive unit seemed to wear down throughout the game and allow ULM to attempt a fleeting comeback effort. We will surely learn more about the defense next weekend at Central Florida.
So, all things considered, Memphis is 1-0 and has won 4 straight season openers. The Tigers begin play in the American Athletic Conference next Saturday when they travel to Orlando to face UCF, who routed Florida International University 61-17 on CBS Sports Network just before the network switched over to the Memphis game. I will wait to make my judgment on this Tigers team until I see them play in somewhat normal weather conditions, and not coming off the letdown of what the day was supposed to be for the program and the city itself. I expect them to come out focused and ready to go against the Golden Knights, and look like the Tigers we have been waiting for all offseason.
*photo belongs to Justin Ford of USA Today Sports Images