This is the trappiest of all trap games for the Memphis Tigers.
A Friday night game down in Tampa sandwiched between huge home matchups against the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Ole Miss Rebels? Yeah, I’d say it would be easy for the red hot, 4-0 Tigers to be looking ahead, especially after hanging 53 on Cincinnati to topple the preseason conference favorite.
But it’s something Memphis cannot afford to do if it wants to remain unbeaten and continue its climb to the top of the Group-of-Five mountain.
The USF Bulls aren’t a great team by any stretch of the imagination, but they also aren’t the same team that went 4-8 last season, including a 31-20 loss to the Tigers.
By no means are they lighting the world on fire, coming off 20 and 18-point losses to Florida State and Maryland respectively, but they actually have found something productive to rely on offensively: the ground game.
The up-tempo, run-focused style offense has led the Bulls to an average of 221.3 rushing yards and 27.3 points per game. Last season, USF averaged just 107.9 rushing yards and 17.2 points per game as one of the worst offenses in the country.
Marlon Mack is a first-team all-conference talent, and he’s proving it with 285 yards on 53 carries, and fared well against stiff competition in the Seminoles and Terrapins. He’s only scored one touchdown so far, but believe me, those should start coming in bunches against the defenses he will face in conference play.
Adding to that has been the rushing effectiveness of sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers, who has scored twice on the ground and racked up 186 yards on 45 carries. Junior running back Darius Tice has also looked good, averaging a healthy 8.9 yards per carry on 16 attempts, including a 44-yard touchdown.
In the passing game, Flowers has turned it over some, but overall he has looked better than anything the Bulls ran out there last season. USF quarterbacks combined to throw 11 touchdowns total last year, and Flowers has already thrown five through the first three games of this year. You can tell he is still growing in the new system as a starter, but progress is still being made.
So why is all this important as Memphis is concerned? Because the Memphis defense isn’t what it was last season. Granted they have played some explosive offenses so far this year, but the Tigers are currently ranked 104th in total defense, allowing 453.8 yards per game.
With that said, most of that damage has come through the air, as the Tigers are actually pretty solid against the run, holding opponents to 120 yards per game which is good for 34th best in the nation. Whether or not USF can effectively challenge the Memphis secondary remains to be seen, but if it can establish the run that could be enough to open up a few big play opportunities for Flowers through the air.
As for the Bulls defense, it has held its own, ranking 46th in the country in total defense by holding opponents to 344.7 yards per game. The new 4-2-5 scheme appears to be working well enough, as USF has held its opponents to just 210 passing yards per game, which will be key in stymieing the Memphis attack with stud quarterback Paxton Lynch at the helm.
“Paxton Lynch, he went through some (growing pains) as a freshman, but each and every year, you watch the kid get better, and now he’s just flawless,” USF head coach Willie Taggart said of the Tigers’ junior signal caller. “Everything he does, it’s like he’s already seen it, he already ran the play in his head, and there’s no…holding the ball. It’s coming out now. And if he doesn’t have it, he’s athletic enough to run and get the first down or touchdown for you.”
I’m not telling you that USF is going to upset Memphis, but I am telling you that the Bulls have the talent and have improved enough to do it. Plus, they have had an extra week to prepare and rest with a bye last week.
This is a program and a coach DESPERATE for a signature win, and the timing may not be any better than now with the Tigers coming to town with one eye looking ahead to the Rebels.