Tulsa has an opportunity this weekend to capture their biggest win under Coach Montgomery’s reign. It is homecoming week at the University of Memphis, and the 5-2 (2-1) Tulsa Golden Hurricane are set to take on the 5-2 (2-1) Tigers.
After graduating Paxton Lynch and losing head coach Justin Fuente, the Tigers had a lot to reload and high bar to measured against. Through 7 games, new HC Mike Norvell (pictured above) and the Tigers have actually exceeded expectations. Riley Ferguson has this offense humming, the junior QB is averaging 275 yards passing per game and has thrown 14 touchdowns; both of those stats rank in the top 30 of the NCAA.
This is a meeting between 2 teams tied for 2nd in the AAC West division, and it is a chance for Tulsa to make a statement about where we are at as a program. Let’s get to my preview.
Coaching connection: Mike Norvell coached at Tulsa under Todd Graham from 2007-2010. It was Norvell’s first real coaching gig, as he was the passing game coordinator, receivers coach, and director of recruiting. After Bill Blankenship was fired in 2014, Tulsa contacted Norvell (then Arizona’s State OC) about the position, but Norvell declined.
Arizona St OC Mike Norvell tells me he's "flattered by Tulsa's interest but committed to what we are doing here at ASU."
— Travis Haney (@travhaney) December 11, 2014
Last year: Justin Fuente capped off his amazing turnaround with a remarkable 9-4 season. Memphis defeated Tulsa last season 66-42; it was the most points Memphis scored all year.
This year: Memphis’ best win this season was a 35-28 home victory against a 5-3 Temple squad. The Tigers have been very impressive on offense in every game aside from Tulane, but have been a streaky defensive team. In 4 of their 7 games they have allowed less than 20 points, but in their 2 losses they allowed more than 40.
Scoring offense: 38.4 ppg (22nd) Tulsa ranks 19th.
Rushing offense: 154.86 ypg (88th) Tulsa ranks 27th.
Passing offense: 282.4 ypg (29th) Tulsa ranks 39th.
Scoring defense: 22.6 ppg (36th) Tulsa ranks 93rd.
Rushing defense: 183.86 (83rd) Tulsa ranks 91st.
Passing defense: 224.9 ypg (63rd) Tulsa ranks 38th.
Best players: Defensively, Memphis’ best corner (and senior leader) is Arthur Maulet (#8); Maulet is 23rd in the nation in passes defended. Freshman DB/LB Austin Hall (#25) has made a name for himself, he has 28 tackles in the last 3 games, and won AAC defensive player of the week after his 12 tackle performance vs Tulane. Another one of Memphis’ best players is their kicker Jake Elliot. Elliot is 10-13 on field goals this year, including being 2-2 from 50+. Offensively, Riley Ferguson is probably their most talented player; he is 33rd in the nation in QBR, and has more than Dane in yards/game. They have both a talented group of receivers and running backs, but not one guy that can kill you individually.
Uniform Advantage: I have always felt that Memphis’ uniforms are always not as cool as they should be. The superfluous tiger striping is a bit much for me.
Coming off Tulsa’s strong gold-blue-gold performance last week, I’ll give TU the advantage.
Uniform prediction: Considering Memphis will most likely be wearing blue, I hope Tulsa goes a different route so we see more contrast. Gold-white-gold would be spectacular, but considering we have already worn that I want to see white-white-black.
Keys to the game: No one has been able to stop Memphis’ offense this season, that includes Navy, Ole Miss, and a very talented Temple team. Tulane held the Tigers to 24 points, but they were aided by 3 turnovers; Memphis still averaged 6 yards per play, very close to their average of 6.17. This will be Tulsa’s biggest test defensively all-season. Last year Memphis scored their season-high 66 points against Bill Young’s defense, Young will have to prepare for a similar aid-raid attack this week. The key for Tulsa slowing Memphis this week is first, stop the run. Memphis is not overly impressive running the ball, but it certainly is part of their offense; the Tigers have 5 backs averaging over 6 yards per carry. If Tulsa can make Memphis 1-dimensional, that leads to my second point: pressure the QB. Riley Ferguson is inexperienced, and after listening to a Memphis podcast, I’ve learned that he is known to try and do too much when he is trying to escape pressure. This can lead to big sacks, fumbles, and interceptions. The good news for Tulsa, Memphis is one of the worst in the nation at protecting the QB, allowing over 3 sacks/game! The key offensively for Tulsa is to once again be balanced passing and rushing the ball, and of course minimize mistakes. Memphis is 3rd in the nation in turnovers gained, getting 19 takeaways through 7 games this season. Tulsa should also try to dictate the tempo and slow the game down like they did vs Houston. A 100+ point shootout on the road does not favor us, and we have a running game to lean on to help control the pace.
Preview: This is a big game for Tulsa and coach Monty. As I mentioned in the podcast, Tulsa is gaining respect, and knocking on the door to be in the upper-tear of the AAC with Navy, Houston, Memphis, USF, and Temple. If TU were to win this game, they would burst through that door and solidify our program’s resurgence. However, in my experiences as a college football fan, this is the type of game that turns into a blowout if the lower tear team just isn’t quite ready yet. This is because in games like this, the upper-tear team is prepared and not caught off guard, unlike Tulsa’s games vs Ohio State and Houston earlier this year. TU’s best win this year has been vs SMU, which isn’t saying much. Memphis would be Monty’s best win BY FAR.
Regarding the matchups, I like every one of them besides Memphis’ pass-offense vs our secondary. Everyone agrees that our secondary has been much better this year, but we have not faced a passing offense like this so far. I think we can stop the run, and I think we can run the ball efficiently on the Tigers; the key matchup is whose QB plays better, and whose secondary is more improved. Memphis also struggled against the pass last year; this year they have improved, but really struggled against Ole Miss and Temple. I think that if we can protect the QB (should be easy because Tigers are 118th in sacks), keep it simple in the passing game, and Dane doesn’t make mistakes, we’ll be able to score on this defense.
Prediction: This is a tough one for me to predict. When I started writing this preview I had in my mind that I was going to pick Memphis, because I thought that their defense was much improved this year. However, after looking at the stats, I am convinced that TU can move the ball on the ground vs Memphis. Sure the Navy numbers inflate their stats a bit, but the Tigers still allowed over 260 yards on the ground to Ole Miss. Also, with our red-hot passing attack we can challenge this Tigers secondary. Temple passed for 445(!) yards vs the Tigers, and I think Dane can do even better (as long as he doesn’t turn it over). So this game comes down to our defense. They have been the story all-season, and it has been both good or bad. This is a chance for Keanu Hill to shut down a receiver, an opportunity for Jordan Mitchell to continue making plays, Petera Wilson to get 3 sacks, Trent Martin to stuff the run, McKinley Whitfield to lay the wood on a poor receiver, and its a chance for our defense to WIN us a game. I am convinced that we can do it, and I’m excited to see it happen. Tulsa 35-30.