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VOL. 131 | NO. 177 | Monday, September 5, 2016

Mike Norvell Wins Coaching Debut

By Don Wade

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It was one of those grind-through-it practices before the first game of the college football season. Except that on this morning – 11 days before the University of Memphis would open the season at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium – the Tigers had taken a pass on the grinding.

First-year head coach Mike Norvell was not pleased.

“Today we missed an opportunity,” he said then. “I’m not sure when it’s gonna cost us, but you don’t get today back.”

To be sure, the Tigers did not pay a price on Saturday, Sept. 3, as they began the season as expected: by cruising by FCS foe Southeast Missouri State 35-17. The Tigers led 22-0 after the first quarter and had gained 153 yards on 23 plays. SEMO had 14 yards on 17 plays.

And so it went. It was easy, which probably was part of the explanation for the Redhawks outscoring Memphis 14-6 in the second half.

But that’s just a footnote.

“All right, 1-0!” Norvell said as he sat down for his first post-game press conference.

Tennessee fans are still catching their collective breaths after escaping with a 20-13 overtime win over Appalachian State. After being upset by Wisconsin, LSU has gone from potential national title contender to again having a major quarterback problem, and again having a Mad Hatter back on the hot seat in coach Les Miles.

The Memphis Tigers never gave their fans – and they came out 42,876-strong – a minute’s worry or a moment’s fear.

“If your focus is down the road, then what’s the point of playing the game that you’re in?” asked the new starting quarterback, Riley Ferguson. “The only way you can go undefeated or have a great season is if you’re winning the game you’re playing.”

Wise words, those. For Memphis knows too well what a lack of control looks like. We all recognize the broader loss in recent days: news reports that Memphis is out of the running for potential Big 12 expansion.

Memphis couldn’t even make the cut down to 11 schools under consideration. Memphis was eliminated while the likes of Colorado State, Rice and Tulane are still dreaming.

Crazy, but apparently true.

There has not been a word on any of this from U of M president David Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen, the non-disclosure agreement with the Big 12 about expansion serving as thin cover.

But what can the football team do besides go out and hit some people and score some points?

So, that’s exactly what the Tigers did with little regard for the politicking and maneuvering of their elders.

“Most of the people on the team didn’t even know we wasn’t a candidate anymore,” said running back Doroland Dorceus. “It is what it is. We knew it could happen.”

And that they couldn’t stop it. The team across the line of scrimmage? Another matter.

So, yes, it was still an evening for savoring the start of new season and a new era. Norvell on the sidelines as the successor to Justin Fuente, who by the way won his first game atVirginia Tech and next gets a shot at the Vols at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

Ferguson was under center as the successor to Paxton Lynch and came out firing strikes, finishing 26-for-40 for 295 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He called his night “average” and his coach said about what you’d expect a coach to say: “He did some good things, but it looked like the first game.”

A few early impressions from night one:

•The offense will likely struggle as the competition improves. Except for freshman Patrick Taylor’s 51-yard run in the fourth quarter, the Tigers did not have a play go longer than 23 yards.

•Memphis rushed for 111 yards on 33 attempts, but that’s deceiving because of Taylor’s late long run. Take out his run, and they had 60 yards rushing on 32 attempts. Norvell used a lot of different bodies on the offensive line and does not have a group of starters he’s committed to for the season. Not yet.

•Ferguson has some ability to elude a rush, although he did take three sacks, but he did not look like a running threat. Officially, he had -11 yards on six attempts.

•The Tigers will need to get a lot out of special teams this season. Jake Elliott hit on field goals from 40 and 45 yards; Tony Pollard had 63 yards on kick returns with a long of 38 yards. The Tigers also blocked a punt.

•On defense, cornerback Art Maulet had an interception and three pass breakups, while linebacker Genard Avery had two tackles for loss among his seven overall tackles. They will need to force turnovers to take a little heat off the offense.

Next up for Memphis: a bye week, which seems ridiculous after just one game, but the scheduling gods apparently weren’t of a mind to “Stripe Up” and do the Tigers any favors.

On Sept. 17, the Kansas Jayhawks come to town and seeing as how it is for a football and not a basketball game, the Tigers should be the favorites.

But mistakes and opportunities missed, such as that practice day the Tigers more or less took off, do come back on a team. That’s actually not just so much coachspeak.

The Tigers were far from perfect in their first game, and against an opponent that bears no resemblance to Ole Miss or Houston.

Those, however, are worries for another day. Starting 1-0, which no new Memphis head coach had done in more than three decades, is the preferable way to begin things.

“We wasn’t gonna lose,” Dorceus said. “There’s no way we was gonna let that happen. There’s no such thing as an upset. It’s the best team that day.”

On Sept. 3, 2016, that team was Memphis. That’s enough for the first day of the season.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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