The Memphis Tigers opened the 2013 season Saturday with a 28-14 loss at home to the Duke Blue Devils. Though it wasn’t the result head coach Justin Fuente and his team were looking for, it’s becoming quite obvious that teams can no longer chalk up the Tigers as an easy win.
In 2012, Memphis won four games. That might not seem like a great year to most people, but for a program that went 5-31 in the three seasons before Fuente arrived, it was a huge step forward. Saturday’s game was a clear indication that Fuente is building something worth keeping an eye on.
The atmosphere reminded fans of the glory days when DeAngelo Williams was totting the ball out of the backfield, as 44,237 people showed up to watch the Tigers play Duke. Take a moment to let that sink in. Nearly 45,000 fans came to the Liberty Bowl and one side of the stadium was almost completely full. Tiger lane, where fans go to tailgate, was littered with grills, tents and fans.
People want to see the program succeed and Fuente, as well as players, acknowledged after the game how electric the atmosphere was.
Last year, Memphis lost to the Blue Devils 38-14. This time around, Memphis had a chance to win the game, but let it slip away in the fourth quarter. Regardless, the Tigers talent level is way ahead of where it was under former head coach Larry Porter.
The offense still has a long way to go, but has a lot of promising young players that will only get better with time. Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch was so-so in his first collegiate start, which can be expected from a guy who has never thrown a collegiate pass before Saturday. He showed flashes of big things to come, displaying his rocket-arm that coaches raved about during the offseason, particularly on his 45-yard strike to Tevin Jones to set up a touchdown two plays later.
He didn’t complete all of his long throws, but he also didn’t hesitate to chuck the ball down the field. The receiving core provided little help at times with drops. Lynch’s relationship with his receivers should get better with each game. He has some young, speedy receivers in Keiwone Malone, Jones and transfer from Clemson Joe Craig that could develop into one of the better units in the AAC.
Because the Tigers’ defense was on the field so much in a very hot environment, they couldn’t hold off the Blue Devils in the fourth quarter. However, if it weren’t for them, Memphis wouldn’t have been in the game. Cornerback Bobby McCain returned a pick 75 yards for a touchdown and Martin Ifedi continued to prove why he’s one of the most underrated defensive ends in all of college football, making six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
The unit that ranked nearly dead last in just about every category in 2011 has perhaps made more progress in the last 1.5 years than any other defense in the country. And, like the offense, the talent level is on the rise.
Fuente has people believing in this team again. Fans are turning out in much larger numbers and the University is finally putting money into the program. The talent is higher than it has been in five years and recruits are taking notice. The Tigers are still a ways off from competing for conference championships and winning on a consistent basis, but you have to be impressed with what Fuente has done in a short amount of time.