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VOL. 132 | NO. 174 | Friday, September 1, 2017
Don Wade

Don Wade

Tigers Deliver Victory in Wind and Rain

By Don Wade

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Tigers kick returner Tony Pollard let the ball settle into his hands. Do not take that part for granted. This was at the start of the second half Thursday night at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. And not to say there was a lot of water, but at one point the Cajun Navy probably could have sailed areas of the stadium concourse.

Dedicated Tigers fans turned out for a rainy, windy night football against Louisiana-Monroe Thursday, Aug. 31, at Liberty Bowl Stadium. (Matthew A. Smith)

One of the few brave souls who watched in the stands fully embraced all of this rain handed down from Hurricane Harvey; the young man was literally wearing a giraffe floaty around his waist.

And the rain wasn’t even the worst of it.

“The wind was what made it harder,” University of Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson said.

Still, in the first two quarters, Louisiana-Monroe fumbled four times and lost three of them. As for Ferguson, he never looked comfortable throwing the ball and hit on just 10 of 25 passes for 97 yards and a pick.

So, yes, the hardest part for Pollard was catching the football. The next-hardest part was not losing it as he ran 99 yards for a touchdown, eluding the grasp of the one Warhawks player that had a chance to tackle him.

With that score and the extra point, Memphis was ahead 27-7 and on its way to a season-opening 37-29 victory (the Tigers gave up two late TDs after the matter was settled).

So raise a glass of rainwater – or something more enjoyable – and cheer the start of what could be a special season.

That said, championship rings are not earned by winning the first game of the season. But Pollard did win a bunch of folks free jewelry. Robert Irwin Jewelers ran a promotion promising refunds to anyone who made a purchase in the preceding two weeks – if the Tigers returned their opening kickoff of a half for a touchdown.

Riley Ferguson prepares to receive a snap during the Tigers' season-opening game against Louisiana-Monroe. (Matthew A. Smith)

Knopf seemed to take it all in stride, posting a video replay of Pollard's kick return on Twitter @askhowiek and saying, "Refund party coming soon!" He told various media outlets that he expected the "party" to cost him about $100,000, but said he had insurance for it.

For years, it would have been a safe bet. Not now. Memphis was almost a four-touchdown favorite over a Louisiana-Monroe team that went 4-8 last season and was one of the worst teams in the country defending the run.

So the Tigers did the smart thing Thursday night. They ran the ball. Which is to say they rolled up 321 rushing yards and broke off TD runs of 66, 63 and 55 yards. Darrell Henderson led the way with 169 yards on 12 rushes; Patrick Taylor Jr. carried 15 times for 131 yards.

“For us to be successful offensively, we have to be able to establish the run,” said Tigers coach Mike Norvell.

Meanwhile the defense, with an assist from Mother Nature, created turnovers.

“Three-plus is our motto and today we got four, so that’s even better,” said defensive back Austin Hall.

And those are good numbers all. Fun numbers. But the most important number was revealed before kickoff.

Memphis President M. David Rudd announced on Twitter that the Tigers had sold 22,500 season tickets. As recently as the 2014 season, the school sold less than 10,000.

University of Memphis Head Coach Mike Norvell awaits the start of the Tigers' game against Louisiana-Monroe. (Michael A. Smith)

The weather didn’t beat the Tigers on the field Thursday night, but it kept fans away. That doesn’t change anything; the program is in a good place. When UCLA comes to town on Sept. 16, the Liberty Bowl will be packed and rocking.

And the game should be what it really wasn’t in week one: competitive.

Truth is, this Memphis team is now expected to pound the likes of Louisiana-Monroe. The Tigers were predicted to win the American Athletic Conference West Division. They could crack the Top 25 sooner rather than later.

This is the new normal.

With some imperfections, including too many penalties (10 for 96 yards) and the defense going a bit soft in the fourth quarter, the Tigers achieved Norvell’s goal of going 1-0 this week.

“I wasn’t very happy with how we ended the game,” the coach said.

But starting the season with a soaking-wet win, when they had to find a way to score when Ferguson couldn’t play pitch and catch with Anthony Miller and the rest of the Memphis receivers?

He’ll take that every time.

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