For the first time in the 2013 season, the Memphis Tigers were completely dominated in a half, falling behind 31-3 to SMU heading into the locker room last Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Head coach Justin Fuente had some words with his team at the half and it came out in the second to make it a game, but ultimately fell, 34-29.
It was an eye-opening experience for Memphis in its journey to competing and winning on a weekly basis.
"We're constantly evaluating what we're doing on both sides of the ball and in special teams, constantly evaluating our personnel" Fuente said. "The way we're operating and trying to find the way in which to operate and ways in which to tweak what we're doing that gives us the best chance to win. I think it was a good time for us to do a little self-reflection and kind of throw ourselves back together as a team and get a singular focus."
Focus will be key leading up to Wednesday's home game against the Cincinnati Bearcats (5-2, 2-1 AAC), the first meeting between the two schools since the Bearcats left Conference USA for the then Big East in 2004.
The Tigers have struggled on offense for much of the season and it won't get any easier with a Cincinnati defense that ranks eighth in the FBS in total yards allowed per game (286.9). The offensive line had trouble against SMU allowing quarterback Paxton Lynch to drop back and have time to make throws in the pocket.
Senior tight end Jesse Milleson said the line will have to follow through with their assignments to keep a stout Cincinnati front seven from creating havoc in the backfield.
"We're going to have to do our assignments, all 11 of us, on the offensive side. They're big up front, so we have to make sure we're all on the same page and do what we're supposed to do and make sure Paxton has time to throw the ball and make his reads and all that stuff."
The Bearcats are in the top 25 in the country in sacks and tackles for loss per game. They have given many teams trouble with their ability to get in the backfield and stop plays before they ever get going. Memphis also has to take in to account Cincinnati's pass defense, which has also been very good.
"Obviously, when you look at Cincinnati, they're in the top 10 nationally in defense and very physical up front," Fuente said. "They do some things schematically that can cause you problems. Most of all, personnel wise, they're pretty darn good. I think their strength on defense is in their front seven. They're as big and physical of a team that we've played I think in the front seven."
The Bearcats lost starting quarterback Munchie Legaux in a 45-17 loss to Illinois due to a knee injury, but Brandon Kay has stepped up in his absence.
The Memphis defense has been one of the best in the country, but in the first half against SMU, it allowed the Mustangs some big plays that it had avoided for most of the season. The defensive line and linebackers have been strengths all year and are also in the upper echelon in sacks and TFL per game.
They will be tested by a Cincinnati offensive line that ranks seventh in the country in sacks allowed per game at 0.71. Memphis has been able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season and it will once again be an important factor if the Tigers are to score their first big win of the year.
"We've been looking at Cincinnati a lot, but we've also been looking at ourselves," said junior defensive lineman Terry Redden. "We're really trying to develop an identity for the defense, so with this game that'll be a big thing."
Though Memphis is sitting at 1-5 and 0-3 in the AAC, there is tangible progression. The Tigers are competing hard and have put themselves in position to win every game they've played, but are still learning to close out games and play a full four quarters.
Milleson said he feels that the team isn't just one game away, but one big play away from going on a streak.
"We're one play away. We just have to put it all together. We're right there. We're so close. Coach Fuente tells us we're so close and keeps our spirits high and stuff like that. I can't wait till it explodes because it's going to happen real soon."
Wednesday's match is set for 7:04 p.m. CT and will be nationally televised on ESPN2.