If the first victory of the Justin Fuente Era proves to be something of a turning point for the University of Memphis football program, it will be remembered differently in the days and years ahead.
Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam (9) celebrates with wide receiver Marcus Rucker after the final play against Rice at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last week. The win was the first for head coach Justin Fuente.
(Photo: Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE)
The score – Tigers 14, Rice 10 – may be recalled accurately, but that will be about it. The cold and rainy conditions? Those precious few Tigers fans that were there at the end in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Oct. 6, 2012 – all 173 of them – will remember the night as colder, rainier. They may even conjure up a snowflake or two.
After decades of returning frustration and two years of utter misery under Larry Porter, they’re entitled.
“They’re tougher than we are,” said cornerback Robert Steeples. “I was running around to stay warm. We should give them all game balls.”
Here, here. To be a dedicated Memphis football fan is to first to engage in redundancy. If you’re a fan at all, you are dedicated beyond all reason. So if this was the start of something, well, new, we can forgive those fans who came and were chased away by the rain, lightning and a 10-0 Rice halftime lead. We can even forgive fans who never made it out of their driveway.
The Tigers were 0-4 heading into this game. They had started the season with a loss at home to UT Martin, previously unthinkable, and lost by 18 at home to Middle Tennessee. It’s enough to test anyone’s blind faith.
And truthfully, with the Tigers down 10-0 at the half, the expectation along cynics row – the press box – was that the Tigers would come out for the weather-delayed second half and dutifully take their beating.
Instead, they played with a renewed energy while the Rice Owls played as though the hour had grown too late.
“Coach has been talking about enthusiasm feeding the flame,” Steeples said.
“The kids wanted to go back out and play,” Fuente said. “They really did. They’re getting more invested in the program. When you do that, it becomes harder to quit.”
There was no quit in the Tigers on this night. Turning to redshirt freshman running back Carl Harris (68 yards on 15 carries) and junior college transfer Brandon Hays (51 yards on six carries), the Tigers began pushing the ball downfield; starting running backs Jai Steib and Jaquise Cook each lost first-half fumbles.
“For an O-lineman, it’s great when a running back refuses to go down,” said senior Jordan Devey. “The O-line, we were sticking together even though we had some position changes.”
Fuente used both starter Jacob Karam and Eric Mathews at quarterback. Though the Tigers threw the ball just 14 times, they were quietly efficient. Karam finished 8-of-12 for 70 yards with one touchdown. Mathews was 1-for-2, his one completion an 11-yard TD. Neither threw a pick.
Rice won’t ever be confused with a good team (now 1-5, 0-3 in Conference USA), but the Tigers’ defense did shut down an offense that had averaged 30.2 points per game.
“The defense was outstanding,” Fuente said.
“It was a day defensive guys like – wet, cold, trouble throwing the ball,” said defensive back Mitch Huelsing. “Every play we stuck to our jobs to go get a win.”
The last time the Tigers had won a football game? On Oct. 22, 2011, over Tulane. One of two wins against 10 losses. Or taking the Porter Era as a whole, one of three wins against 21 losses.
Obviously, the Tigers’ victory over Rice does not make the radar beyond Dave Brown’s neighborhood. But in Memphis, it qualified as a hurricane of emotion. So when the victory was secure, the coach got a Gatorade bath and Karam ran over to the band and led the singing of the school fight song, which, for once, was a victory song.
Afterward, he spoke of the team having “a little swagger, momentum … .”
It’s what a giddy college kid says when he’s in the moment. It’s also human nature when you finally receive some reward for hard work in the face of relentless adversity.
“We’re 1-0 in conference,” Huelsing said, and it’s an indisputable fact.
“Overwhelming pride,” Devey said with a grin. “It feels good to win.”
Feels like the first time.