If I told you in 2011 that the Memphis Tigers defense would be one of the best in the country by 2013, most people would’ve called me crazy. The evolution in such a short amount of time has been improbable.
In 2011, the Memphis defense ranked nearly dead last in the country in total defense. It moved up to 50th nationally last season and through four games this year, the Tigers are an unbelievable 15th in the entire country.
And no, it’s no fluke. Head coach Justin Fuente is building something special on the banks of the Mississippi.
This defense has improved a ton in the secondary and the rush defense, well, let’s just say the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Steel Curtain has nothing on them. Okay, okay, that’s a bit exaggerated, but nonetheless, the Memphis rush defense has been a virtual brick wall. But just saying the Tigers defense is one of the best in the nation means nothing if there aren’t statistics to back that claim up.
So, let’s take a look inside the numbers that make this Memphis defense so tough to move the ball on.
As stated, the defense ranks 15th in the country in total yards allowed per game (319.8) and has given the team a chance to win each of its three losses. The pass defense hasn’t been bad by any stretch, allowing 215.5 passing ypg (46th). But the rush defense has been the biggest eyebrow raiser.
Led by a stout defensive line, the Tigers are 15th in ypg allowed on the ground (104.3) and tied for eighth in sacks per game (3.50). Surprisingly, that’s only good for fourth in the AAC but still is very impressive. The leader on the line is junior Martin Ifedi, who had a good sophomore year and has been on a tear to start 2013. He leads the team and AAC with 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Ifedi is also third in the nation with 1.4 sacks a game. He has a good group around him as well, including Terry Redden, Chase Rome and linebacker Tank Jakes, who has made plays all year against the run.
In the last three games, Memphis has allowed rushing outputs to their opponents of 60, 74 and 110. Last week in a heartbreaking loss, the Tigers held a Central Florida offense that was averaging 450 ypg to just 270 yards of total offense. The game before, it held Arkansas State to just 255 yards and seven points and tied a program record with seven sacks.
Another aspect that makes the defense one of the nation’s best is that it isn’t allowing offenses to score a lot of points. The most the Tigers have given up was 28 to Duke in game one. The unit is tied for 22nd at the FBS level, allowing only 19.0 ppg.
A ton of credit has to go to defensive coordinator Barry Odom. He has changed the mentality of a defense that was once weak to a physical, hard-nosed bunch. The Memphis defense is gritty these days, not the cream puff it was just two years ago under former coach Larry Porter.
It’s remarkable the progress this bunch has made. There’s still a long season ahead, but what this unit is doing has to be one of the biggest storylines all year. What fans are witnessing is perhaps one of the best defenses ever assembled and absolutely one of the country’s best.