Memphis has endured its share of struggles in its first season under coach Justin Fuente, but suddenly the Tigers seem poised to produce a strong finish that could serve as a springboard into the 2013 season.
They took the first step by snapping a four-game losing streak with their second win of the season, a 37-23 victory over Tulane on Nov. 10. The Tigers amassed 386 yards of total offense, delivered a number of big plays in the passing game and did a good job defensively against a Tulane team that scored 102 points in its two previous games.
Fuente heaped praise on his offense, his defense, and, well, just about everyone in the crowd of 18,796 at the Liberty Bowl.
"I'm awfully proud of the guys tonight, awfully proud of Tiger Nation for showing up to support us," Fuente said. "We are trying our best to build an aura about playing here, and there's two components to that-obviously, the team on the field and the fans in the stands. And I thought the fans in the stands did their job tonight. I thought they were vocal, and I appreciate them for coming out to support us."
The Tigers have suffered through two four-game losing streaks this season but now have a chance to finish with three consecutive victories. Their progress will be tested when they visit an Alabama-Birmingham team that has won two in a row, but the Tigers will be favored when they entertain winless Southern Miss in the season finale.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to win more meaningful games against tougher foes, and Fuente thinks the Tigers are getting there. Building a successful college football program takes time and good fortune, but asked about his team's progress since the opening week, Fuente said it all starts with one basic principle.
"Well, I think the biggest thing for me is the accountability of the squad," Fuente said. "Overall dedication to the team and putting the team first, working every day, coming out and showing some grit and some toughness-I'm not sure we always had that. I don't know. I wasn't here. I just think that element is starting to kind of grow some roots here."
• The Tigers will have a chance to win their third game of the season when they visit UAB after beating Tulane 37-23. The Blazers lost seven of their first eight games but have won two in a row, beating Southern Miss 27-19 and Marshall 38-31. The key could be slowing sophomore RB Darrin Reaves, who rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Marshall. Reaves has rushed for 573 yards in the past three games. He had 355 rushing yards in the first seven games.
• Memphis established a season high with four interceptions in its victory over Tulane, more than doubling their season total. The Tigers had only three interceptions going into the game. The last time they had four interceptions in a game was against East Carolina in 2004.
• Memphis has won seven in a row and eight of its last nine against Tulane. The Tigers now lead the series 18-11-1 and hold an 11-2 advantage in games played at the Liberty Bowl.
• Junior P Tom Hornsey is on the verge of breaking the school record for punting yards. He had three punts for 158 yards against Tulane, including a 61-yarder. He now has 9,860 punting yards, 79 yards shy of Memphis' record.
Keep An Eye On: Maybe this is the spark junior QB Jacob Karam needed to get the Memphis passing game going in the final weeks of the season. Karam completed 14 of 18 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns against Tulane, just the second time this season he has thrown for more than 200 yards. It was the third time this season he has thrown multiple touchdown passes and the first since the Middle Tennessee game on Sept. 15.
Looking Good: The Tigers continued to convert fourth-down plays at an impressive rate against Tulane. They went for it on fourth down four times and converted twice. They were ninth in the nation in fourth-down conversions going into the game. They now have converted 19 of 26 fourth-down opportunities this season, including 14 of 17 in the last five games.
Still Needs Work: Turnovers continue to be a bugaboo for the Tigers. They won despite committing three turnovers against Tulane, but they know that isn't a formula for continued success. QB Jacob Karam threw an interception and fumbled once. RB Brandon Hayes also fumbled. The Tigers have lost 18 fumbles this season, by far the most in Conference USA.
Quote To Note: "We were able to get some big plays … and I thought Jake did a good job. He was pretty efficient on first-down passing, which is when you have an opportunity to get some big plays."-Memphis coach Justin Fuente, on QB Jacob Karam's performance in a victory over Tulane.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
• With his first reception of the game, senior WR Marcus Rucker moved into sole possession of fifth place on Memphis' list for career receptions. Rucker entered the game tied with Russell Copeland (1989-92) with 116 receptions. Rucker finished with four catches for 55 yards. Rucker also passed Isaac Bruce (1992-93) for eighth with 1,586 career yards.
• Sophomore LB Tank Jakes returned his first career interception for a 32-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Tulane. It was the second time the Tigers have returned an interception for a touchdown this season. Freshman LB Wynton McManis did it against Duke.
• Junior RB Jai Steib has scored three touchdowns in the past two games, including a 1-yard scoring run against Tulane. Steib now has four rushing touchdowns this season, all in the past five games.
• Junior TE Jesse Milleson has caught touchdown passes in each of the past two games. He had a 15-yard touchdown reception against Tulane and a 1-yard touchdown catch against Marshall. Milleson finished the Tulane game with career highs of three catches for 52 yards.
• Junior DL Johnnie Farms had one of the best games of his career in the victory over Tulane. Farms tied his season high with five tackles and equaled a career high with 1.5 sacks. He also had two tackles for a loss, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and broke up a pass.
• Junior LB Anthony Brown tied his career high with 11 tackles against Tulane, including six solo stops. Brown also had 11 tackles against Duke