Know Your Foe: Memphis Tigers

The Memphis Tigers and other Conference USA programs have historically struggled at the ticket office, but this year was particularly poor. (AP/Mark Humphrey

After Week 9 of the 2009 season, Tommy West was fired from his job as head coach for the Memphis Tigers. He had led the Tigers to five bowl games in six years from 2003 to 2008, but had fallen on hard times in 2009. Memphis was 2-7, last in the conference when West was relieved of his duties, although he agreed to coach out the rest of the season.

At the press conference announcing his firing, West got a little emotional and lamented the lack of support shown by Memphis fans over the past season.

“We have a lot of great fans out there, and they need to stand up right now,” West’s voice cracked. “At some point you gotta help this football program or do away with it.”

What he said was completely true. Memphis and other Conference USA programs have historically struggled at the ticket office, but this year was particularly bad. The Liberty Bowl holds 60,000 at capacity, but the Tigers only averaged 25,000 in attendance in 2009, and only 4,000 showed up to see Memphis take on division leader East Carolina in Week 8 of the season.

In a lot of ways, UConn in 2017 is in a similar place to Memphis was in 2009. UConn has struggled to attract fans this year, drawing only 14,000 fans to Rentschler Field last Sunday against ECU and 24,000 in the home opener against Holy Cross. To make matter worse, like the Tigers in 2009, UConn has declined from eight-win seasons and bowl victories, coming to rest at the bottom of the conference.

The good news is that Memphis provided a pretty good blueprint for UConn to escape its funk. Memphis hired young TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente as head coach in 2012 and in the years that followed Memphis’ upset, the No. 13 Ole Miss Rebels in the Liberty Bowl, won a conference championship, and became the highest-ranked non power-five team in the short history of the College Football Playoff poll.

After Fuente left for Virginia Tech, Memphis hired their current coach, Mike Norvell. Norvell kept the success going in 2016, going 8-5 and giving No. 18 Houston their first loss on the year. In 2017, Memphis is right where they want to be as a program: neck and neck with SMU and Navy in a fight for a spot in the American title game.

Memphis runs a prolific passing offense that relies heavily on short passes downfield and screens. This death-by-a-million-cuts play style has served the Tigers very well in 2017 so far, earning them a respectable 272 passing yards per game.

Quarterback Riley Ferguson has played well in 2017, completing 55 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Ferguson had a breakout performance against UCLA where he outdueled consensus first round draft pick Josh Rosen, throwing for 398 yards and a career-high six touchdowns.

Ferguson’s favorite target is Anthony Miller, a former walk-on who leads the team in receptions with 20 and receiving yards with 292 on the year so far.

The biggest surprise this year for Memphis has to be the emergence of sophomore running back Darrell Henderson, who already has 393 yards rushing on an efficient 8.9 yards per carry in 2017, despite running behind an unreliable offensive line.

If there’s a weakness for Memphis, it’s on the defensive side of the ball. The Tigers rank 107th in the nation in yards per play given up, and give up a whopping 331 yards per game through the air. Memphis is a little more stout against the run, giving up successful runs around 40 percent of the time, ranking 60th in the nation.

It’s not a great sign when a defensive back leads your team in tackles, but safety Austin Hall has had an impressive season so far, racking up 30 tackles, four-and-a-half tackles for loss and one interception on the year.


Luke Swanson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at luke.swanson@uconn.edu.