The weather on Saturday was beautiful, recent alumni were given season tickets, and fans were able to buy tickets for as cheap as five dollars. All of this, plus some recent excitement that Justin Fuente and the Memphis athletic department created, led to one of the largest home crowds for the Tigers in recent memory.
Word around the city was that these were not the same old Tigers. These Tigers were different than the Tigers in years past who went 3-21 under Larry Porter. They have an actual win streak to protect, a coach who knows what he is doing, and a young group of players itching to make magic happen on the field (22 players made their college debuts against the Blue Devils).
Yet, when the clock struck zero it was a result all too familiar for Tigers fans as the beloved home team lost their season opener 28-14 to the Duke Blue Devils.
However, do not be fooled by the score or the stats. Memphis was right there with a chance to win this game midway through the fourth quarter. A few missed opportunities led to a Tigers defeat, but there are some positives that can be taken away from their game against Duke.
1) Tigers fans came out to support the home team.
Perhaps the best thing that happened all game was the fact that the attendance for the Tigers home opener was 44,237. That is the most since the home opener in 2009 against Ole Miss (and let us all be honest for a second, most of the 45,000 plus that attended that game were Rebel fans).
It is the highest attended game versus a non-SEC opponent since November of 2005, when former Conference USA rival UAB came to town (that game saw 47,669).
Coach Fuente noticed the overwhelming support from the fans in attendance and said, “I want to publicly thank everybody for coming out. It was an awesome display of Tiger Nation, and their desire for us to build a football program here… I am sorry we are sending them out of here with a loss, but you need to keep coming out here because we are going to keep getting better.”
2) The Tigers are still an extremely young team.
For an illustration of this youth, all you have to do is look at the very first play from scrimmage. Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch completed a one yard pass to true freshman wide receiver Marquis Warford. Warford finished with four catches and Lynch finished with 148 yards through the air.
“I like the way the young guys who played in the game prepared,” Fuente said when asked about the performance of his younger players.
“I like the way they approached the game. I thought at times we looked young. At times we looked hectic… they did not make huge mistakes, but I do not think that they would say that they played as well as they would have liked to.”
These players will have to mature quickly for the Tigers to have the type of season that they want.
3) Paxton Lynch is going to be good.
Although Paxton Lynch held his own out there in his first collegiate game ever, neither he nor his head coach was thrilled with his how he played.
“Some good and some bad,” Coach Fuente said about his freshman quarterback’s performance.
“He made some plays. Obviously the play that stands out is the quarterback sneak, he has got to secure the ball. It is the most important thing that anybody who touches the ball does is come up off the ground with it.”
Lynch proved to be his toughest critic tonight letting everyone know that he holds himself to a higher standard. “I do not think I played very good,” the freshman quarterback said. “I fumbled a snap in the red zone… I want to play perfect, but I did not, so I do not think I played very well.”
Lynch has a ways to go before he is performing at the level his team needs him to be to secure tough wins like these, and the level that he wants.
4) The Tigers are close to being able to compete with the quality opponents, but close is not what this program is about.
Memphis was right there with 11:38 left in the fourth quarter. The home team battled Duke the entire game, despite the Blue Devils dominating time of possession and total yards.
A Jai Steib 11 yard touchdown run tied the game, and momentum swung in the Tigers favor.
Alas, Duke took their next two possessions straight down the teeth of the Memphis defense for touchdowns and put the game out of reach.
“We have got to learn to finish against quality opponents… we are not happy,” said Fuente. “Yeah people will say that we played them better this year than we did last year, but that is not what we are shooting for… we are going to make (the team) take the next step.”
Coach is right, Memphis did play Duke better this year than they did in last year’s 38-14 loss. That day Memphis fans everywhere saw the Blue Devils pass for over 300 yards while holding Memphis to just 152 total yards of offense.
However, according to Coach Fuente, close losses are not what this program is about anymore, “That is the step we have got to make as a program… versus good teams you just cannot make little mistakes,” the second-year Memphis coach said. “Especially with where we are at now, you score to tie it up and then you make a couple of mistakes that get amplified a little bit and the next thing you know you are back down.”
CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games.