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VOL. 126 | NO. 230 | Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tigers’ Dreadful Season Finally Coming to End

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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The Memphis fan walked up the tunnel and into Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, looked at the scoreboard, saw 13:43 remaining in the first quarter and a “7” under “Herd,” and he cussed.

Memphis takes on Mississippi State on Sept. 1 at the Liberty Bowl. Mississippi State won the game 59-14. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“They scored already?” the man complained to a bystander, then added with a sigh, “That’s Tiger football.”

That man, by the way, is a local elected official. He asked not to be identified and who can blame him? There’s always another election.

And with Tiger football, always another impossible-to-believe loss.

In the latest, on Nov. 17, the Tigers led Marshall, 22-10, early in the fourth quarter and lost 23-22. In a game in which Marshall made six turnovers and Memphis none. In a game in which the Tigers scored a touchdown on a 36-yard fumble recovery and Tigers punter Tom Hornsey recovered his own blocked punt and gained 27 yards.

Hornsey would finish the game as the Tigers’ leading rusher. The Tigers would rush for 39 yards on 26 carries despite having more than a six-minute advantage in time of possession.

No one can make this stuff up.

The second season under head coach Larry Porter concludes Saturday, Nov. 26, at Southern Miss. The team is 2-9, and after going 1-11 in Porter’s first season, the “Porter Era” record stands at 3-20 overall, 1-14 in Conference USA.

Asked to assign himself a coaching grade, Porter said: “At the end of the day, it’s a bottom-line business. I’m judged on wins and losses, so I understand it.”

The blue masses – and they numbered perhaps all of 2,500 in the final home game – are resolute in the belief that Tiger football needs major change. They’re just not sure how, or if, it can actually happen. The losing has been so prolific that it has become difficult to know what to say – especially if you play or coach these games.

The Marshall meltdown came on the heels of blowing a second-half, 18-point lead the previous week in a 41-35 loss to UAB in which the Tigers were outscored 24-0 in the fourth quarter.

Explanations for how this could happen in consecutive games?

“We let another lead get away from us,” said senior defensive lineman Frank Trotter.

“The inability to finish is one thing that frustrates you,” said Porter.

“I understand the fans are frustrated,” said senior cornerback Lavaris Edwards. “We’re frustrated too.”

How frustrated are fans?

After the embarrassing 47-3 loss at Arkansas State in the season’s second game, a loss that momentarily left Memphis as the lowest-rated college football team in the land, according to ESPN.com, the notion of replacing long-time athletic director R.C. Johnson gained renewed energy. But many weeks later that noise has gone quiet, as though everyone accepts that university president Shirley Raines won’t make replacing Johnson one of the last acts of her tenure.

And this is why season-ticket holder Jeff Dodson, 42, said he favored not replacing Porter until Johnson retires.

“I don’t trust the athletic director to pick the next coach,” Dodson said.

Just three years ago, the Tigers went to a bowl game in what turned out to be Tommy West’s next-to-last season. When West went 2-10 in 2009 he was done, but not before he fired a few parting shots that boiled down to one message: Get serious about the football program or get rid of it.

Johnson recently said that the football program’s $10 million “Vision for Victory” fundraising campaign is ahead of schedule. And that’s good news. But right now, any vision for victory still would require a high-powered lens.

“It’s really been bad,” said season-ticket holder Janet Daniels, 49.

From 2003-2005 during the DeAngelo Williams years, the Tigers went to three straight bowl games and Memphis football was a fun time, if not quite big-time. In the 2003 season, the Tigers won nine games (the most since the 1963 team of Billy J. Murphy went 9-0-1 and beat No. 11 Mississippi State and played No. 3 Ole Miss to a 0-0 tie).

Fans such as Dodson don’t dare dream of such glory days, but they do pine for a return to respectability.

“Just be competitive, just be average, in whatever conference we end up in,” Dodson said.

At the football luncheon on Monday, Nov. 21, Porter said he believes the program is making progress.

“The worst is behind us,” Porter said. “I truly believe that, the worst is behind us.”

As rallying cries, a fan’s “just be average” and the coach’s “the worst is behind us” assessments don’t have a lot of zing.

Meantime, Marshall fans Dave and Kim Wilson, who made the drive from Huntington, W.Va., and were huddled together in the mostly empty Liberty Bowl, said about what you would expect them to say.

“The good thing,” Dave Wilson said, “is they’ve got a great basketball team.”

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