‘Character on Line’ as Season Draws to Close for Tigers

By Don Wade

The University of Memphis football team had lost its third straight game and its seventh in eight tries. But that wasn’t what inspired a team meeting that, by all accounts, was much closer to a lecture from first-year head coach Justin Fuente.

“Very transparent and to the point,” senior linebacker Akeem Davis said of the meeting.

“Real honest,” added offensive lineman Jordan Devey.

“In my opinion,” said quarterback Jacob Karam, “it was a little overdue.”

And this from a player who was one of those “called out” by the head coach.

All of this goes to the heart of where the Memphis football program is and is not. Although the Tigers lost to Central Florida, 35-17, at home on Oct. 20, Fuente saw positives in the game – the ongoing effort, the fight, improved attention to detail.

University of Memphis head coach Justin Fuente is not happy with how his Tigers are playing lately, despite improvements seen in a recent loss to the University of Central Florida. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Maybe it didn’t qualify as a clear step forward, but in Fuente’s eyes it looked like a step in the right direction and it felt like some of the things the staff had been preaching were starting to come together.

But none of that seemed to be apparent in the Tigers’ 44-13 loss at Southern Methodist University Oct. 27. Reduced to a single word, Fuente called it a “stumble.”

Immediately ahead is a Saturday, Nov. 3, game at Marshall. The Thundering Herd is just 3-5, 2-2 in Conference USA. But the Tigers also are 21-point underdogs. A poor effort could easily lead to another 31-point loss or worse.

Statistically, the Tigers have been roughly half as good as their opponents. They average 17.5 points a game and the other guys average 33.6. Not surprisingly, they trail in first downs, 188-124, although the disparity in rushing first downs is much closer: opponents 78, the Tigers 70.

“A good run game travels well,” Fuente said.

So does overall talent. And on that score, the Tigers are lacking and will be for some time.

“The coaches call it the talent margin,” Devey said. “They say when there’s a talent deficit, you have to play your best game of football.”

Mistakes, be they missed assignments, penalties or turnovers, always prove more costly for the less talented team. The Tigers have carried the football like it’s a greased pigskin, fumbling 24 times and losing the fumble 14 times.

They also have drawn 48 penalties for a total of 477 yards while opponents have been flagged just 28 times for 235 yards.

“You can definitely make up for (the talent gap) by holding onto (the ball) and taking it,” Fuente said.

Karam has completed 115 of 191 passes (60.2 percent) for 1,146 yards with six touchdowns and just two interceptions. Yet when asked if protecting the football is his most important job, he doesn’t give the answer one might expect.

“I don’t think it is,” he said. “I think the No. 1 thing is executing the play every single time. That’s the thing I fight, doing what the coaches tell me to do precisely every single time.”

This matters, he adds, because in case anyone hasn’t noticed, this is not Texas Tech (Karam’s old school) where the quarterback leaves the locker room throwing and doesn’t stop until the game ends.

“That’s not the way it is here, so if you do throw a pass you better make a play,” Karam said.

Fuente said he may have erred after the Central Florida game by praising the good things the team had done, the progress – if invisible in the team’s record – that was nonetheless evident to him.

“Complimented them and they can’t handle it,” the coach said.

It doesn’t figure to be an issue going forward. Karam points out that Fuente is focused on getting as much rebuilding work done as possible this season.

“He hasn’t said one thing about next year,” Karam said.

“We have 16 quarters of football left,” said Davis. “Obviously, we can’t go to a bowl game, but we still have each other to play for, a city to play for, a university to play for.

“These four games we have our character on the line.”