Opening its season with three consecutive losses to Tennessee-Martin, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State, Memphis is hard-pressed to find the positives in its beginning to the 2012 campaign. As the Tigers head to Wallace Wade Stadium this weekend, first-year head coach Justin Fuente hopes his winless team shares in his frustration after Memphis’ 18-point loss to the Blue Raiders last Saturday.
“I hope they’re disappointed. I think they are. I think they’re disappointed in the way we played on both sides of the ball,” Fuente said in his weekly press conference. “We talked very openly and frankly about it in the meeting [Sunday] in the things I felt like we needed to do in order to play better. I felt like they accepted it.”
Surprisingly, the Tigers woes have not been at the quarterback position this season. After losing its top two signal-callers on the depth chart, Taylor Reed and Andy Summerlin, who transferred to Arkansas and Samford during the offseason, respectively, Memphis was forced to turn to a transfer of its own.
Jacob Karam, a junior who spent his first two years at Texas Tech, has taken the reins for the Tigers this season. Despite never having started a college game and throwing just 18 passes in his two years with the Red Raiders, Karam has adjusted well in his time at the helm of the offense. Through three games, Karam has completed just 58.4 percent of his throws, but has thrown five touchdowns compared to just one interception. That one pick, however, was returned for a touchdown by Middle Tennesee State.
Karam does not have a deep arsenal of targets at his disposal. Of his 52 completions this year, 34 have been to two receivers, Keiwone Malone and Marcus Rucker.
“I’m proud of those kids in the way they’ve embraced it. It’s been nice to see them have some success,” Fuente said. “We have to have some other guys step up. We’ve got to continue to scare people on the outside with another guy out there.”
Although Memphis’ passing offense has not been a weakness in 2012, the Tigers have been prone to turn the ball over early and often. In last week’s loss to Middle Tennessee State, Memphis fumbled the ball six times, ultimately losing three.
Scoring 25 points per contest, Memphis’ offense has not had a problem putting points on the scoreboard, but the defense has been heavily exploited in the team’s first three contests. Despite strong play from junior defensive back Lonnie Ballentine, who is second on the team with 31 tackles and has recorded two interceptions this season, the backfield has found itself susceptible to the big play this year.
The Tigers’ defensive linemen have been less than inspiring as well. Memphis has not recorded a sack this season and has been at the mercy of opposing running backs, allowing 219.3 yards per game and seven touchdowns on the ground. Although the Blue Devils have had very little success running the football this season, averaging just 91.3 yards per game on the ground, they will still present problems for the Tigers in the trenches.
“Duke provides many challenges for us,” Fuente said. “They’re the biggest team we’ve played so far. We’ll have to have a great week of practice.”
Despite the difficulty they have had stopping opposing offenses, special teams has been a bright spot thus far for the Tigers. Punter Tom Hornsey ranks 16th in the nation at 45 yards per punt and has had 10 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Paulo Henriques has struggled on field goals but has been reliable on kickoffs, with 12 of his 14 kicks going for touchbacks.
Memphis’ punt coverage unit has been stellar, holding opponents to a negative return yardage on average. The special teams unit has also been responsible for three blocked kicks this year, one of which was recovered for a touchdown.
“They’ve blocked three punts, they scored with one of those. They recovered a fumble in the end zone on a punt. They’re all over the place,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They have dangerous returners and I think they only have one non-touchback on their kickoffs. They are playing well in the kicking game.”
As the Tigers head to Durham this weekend, they will face what Fuente has called their “first true road test” of the season. Memphis has played away from the Liberty Bowl just once this season when it faced Arkansas State in Jonesboro, Ark., which because of its close proximity to Memphis, did not provide much of a road environment. Fuente said his team is embracing the prospect of being road underdogs this weekend against Duke.
“I love it. I want our kids to embrace it too. Sometimes it’s a little easier to have focus on the road. There’s less distractions. You’re there for strictly business,” Fuente said. “I like playing at the Liberty Bowl and having our fans, but I want our guys to get to the point where we relish in the fact that we’re the only ones there.”