Memphis coach Justin Fuente's first season has been a struggle, but he is pointing to positive developments while also stressing the need for improvement in other areas.
The Tigers have lost four in a row to fall to 1-8 overall and 1-4 in Conference USA. They haven't won since Oct. 6 and opened as underdogs at home this week against a Tulane team that has won only two games this season, but Fuente knows they haven't stopped striving to be better.
The Tigers have shown remarkable resilience in the running game, for instance. Starting running back Jerrell Rhodes was dismissed from the team for personal reasons after rushing for 224 yards in his first three games. With Rhodes out of the lineup for the first time at Duke, the Tigers were held to 71 rushing yards and an average of 2.5 yards per carry. Backups Brandon Hayes and Jai Steib combined for just 38 yards.
It looked like the Tigers might have a stagnant running game to go with their punchless passing game, but something happened over the next few weeks. The linemen kept pushing, the ball carriers kept churning and the running game showed signs of life.
The Tigers broke out for 240 rushing yards against Central Florida on Oct. 20, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Steib and Hayes combined for 171 yards. They continued to move the ball on the ground over the past two weeks, accumulating 258 rushing yards against Southern Methodist and Marshall.
"I think Brandon Hayes has been a large part of that," Fuente said. "He has continued dedication to the craft and continued to work hard. I think Jai has finally gotten over the knee injury, gotten in football shape and is finding himself on what type of running back he is. I think we did some things schematically, and I think our offensive line has improved. If you think where we came from in the spring to now, I think they're continuing to get better."
More recently, the Tigers have encountered a spat of injuries along the offensive line, forcing some to play out of position and others into action, perhaps prematurely. The starters now include true freshman Micah Simmons and sophomore Al Bond.
"I'm pleased with the development of some of those young guys," Fuente said. "We're playing a couple of freshmen. We knew going in that we would have to reach deep if we had to go into our sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth offensive linemen. I think playing those guys earlier in the year is helping us now so they're not stepping out there for the very first time. I'm looking forward to getting those guys that are out back to continue to provide competition and depth at those positions."
• Sophomore CB/KR Bobby McCain is a pretty good bet as an impact player in Memphis' upcoming game against Tulane. McCain had a 52-yard kickoff return and a 61-yard reception against Marshall, two of the five longest plays of the season for the Tigers. Last season against Tulane, McCain had a 79-yard touchdown return on an interception, helping the Tigers beat the Green Wave 33-17 at the Louisiana Superdome.
• Nine of the last 10 games between Memphis and Tulane have been decided by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 25.2 points. The only exception was Memphis' 28-27 victory in 2007.
• Memphis players and fans might recognize two familiar faces on the opposing sideline when they entertain Tulane. Former Memphis assistant coaches Eric Price and John McDonnell are part of the Tulane coaching staff this season.
Series History: Memphis leads Tulane 17-11-1 (last meeting, 2011, 33-17 Memphis).
Scouting The Offense: The Tigers have endured their share of struggles this season, but they moved the ball more effectively in a loss to Marshall. They amassed 372 yards of total offense and converted on 6-of-7 fourth-down plays, fueling a second-half comeback that came up short. The passing game still looks pretty pedestrian with junior QB David Karam averaging 5.93 yards per pass attempt, but junior RBs Brandon Hayes and Jai Steib have kept the running game going behind a patchwork offensive line.
Scouting The Defense: Opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 694 yards and five touchdowns without an interception in the past two games, a bad omen with Tulane QB Ryan Griffin coming to town. The Tigers have been decent against the run but have had trouble in coverage, ranking ninth in Conference USA in pass defense. DE Martin Ifedi will lead a defensive front that must put pressure on Griffin to give CBs Robert Steeples and Bobby McCain, SS Lonnie Balentine and FS Cannon Smith a chance to make plays in the secondary.
Quote To Note: "I think you have to do a good job in letting them know you appreciate their effort and work. It's not easy, but nothing worth having ever is. In order to build a program, you have to take very small steps and do a lot of hard work. The kids in our program have an opportunity in front of them to build momentum into the future of this program and look back and say they were on the foundation of building this football program."-Memphis coach Justin Fuente, on the team's mentality after losing eight of its first nine games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game: Tulane at Memphis, Nov. 10-The Tigers have owned this series in recent years, winning six straight and seven of their last eight against the Green Wave, but they will be slight underdogs at home this time. Tulane has only won two games this season, but both wins came in the past four weeks, sandwiched around a narrow 24-20 loss to UTEP and a narrower 49-47 shootout loss to Rice.
Keys To The Game: The Memphis defense must slow down the Green Wave, which has scored 102 points in its past two games. Tulane QB Ryan Griffin threw for 466 yards in a 55-45 victory over UAB and 476 yards in a 49-47 loss to Rice. The Tigers, ranked ninth in Conference USA in passing defense, will have trouble with Griffin and junior WR Ryan Grant, who leads the conference in receiving (92.7 ypg). Memphis may have an advantage offensively with its running game. The Tigers have run the ball pretty effectively and put up huge numbers on a couple of occasions, something they'll surely try to do against a Tulane team that is last in C-USA in rushing defense.
Players To Watch:
CB/KR Bobby McCain-The sophomore special-teams standout had two of the Tigers' five longest plays of the season against Marshall, a 52-yard kickoff return and a 61-yard reception on a fake punt. McCain had 117 yards on four kickoff returns, going over 100 yards for the third time this season.
WR Marcus Rucker-The senior receiver is tied for fifth all-time at Memphis in receptions. He had six catches for 44 yards against Marshall, moving ahead of Isaac Bruce and Ryan Scott on the school's all-time list.
LB Charles Harris-Just a sophomore, Harris leads the team with 62 tackles. Harris had double-digit tackles in three of the first four games, including 12 in his first career start against UT-Martin and 13 against Arkansas State.
• Junior RB Jai Steib is coming off his first multi-rushing touchdown game of the season. Steib scored on runs of five and two yards against Marshall. It was just the second time this season a Memphis player has scored two touchdowns in a game. WR Marcus Rucker had two touchdown catches against Middle Tennessee.
• The Tigers had two new freshmen starters against Marshall. Freshman OL Micah Simmons made his first career start at right guard. Freshman LaMarvin Ashley made his first start at wide receiver.
• Senior DB Cannon Smith is nearing the end of his career at Memphis. Smith, the son of FedEx CEO Frederick W. Smith, came to Memphis as a quarterback when he transferred from Miami in 2009, but he's starting at free safety now.