Memphis is 1-7 but still tough to figure out
HUNTINGTON - In describing Memphis under its new coaching staff, Marshall coach Doc Holliday summed it up this way: The Tigers' offense and defense are alike.
As he and his two coordinators describe it, those units are alike in this manner: They like to create chaos, leaving opponents hopelessly guessing what's coming next. Holliday summed it up thusly: "They run triple-option, they run mid-option and a lot of things to create problems for our offense. They're a three-down look [on defense] and they're bringing people from all over the place."
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg can attest to the changes in the Memphis defense. Last year, the Herd's biggest problem was trying to neutralize big nose tackle Dontari Poe, and to quit tripping over itself (Marshall had six turnovers before rallying to win 23-22).
The 350-pound Poe anchored a four-man front, but he has gone to the NFL and the new Tiger staff is going with a 3-4 look. Legg confirms what his boss says, and then some: The Tigers (1-7 overall, 1-3 Conference USA) are going in every direction, and coming from every direction.
Martin Ifedi, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound sophomore, has blossomed into a major force from one of the ends, leading the team with seven sacks, 91/2 tackles for loss and two fumbles forced. Legg believes the new scheme has made the most of his ability.
"They don't ever stand still," Legg said of the defensive linemen. "There's three of them, a nose and two ends, tackles, whatever you want to call them, and they're in constant movement. Last year, you knew where Poe was going to be. If he lined up on your right shoulder, he was still going to be on your right shoulder when you made first contact. He might lift you up and throw you in the backfield. ... This year, it's the movement."
The Tiger defense has suffered one season-ending injury, to senior lineman Zach Gholson. Still, the until has improved from 117th to 85th nationally in total defense, 97th to 75th in rushing defense and 109th to 95th in pass efficiency defense.
"But you look at them statistically, and considering [the circumstances], they haven't done that bad," Legg said. "They've got a lot of [tackles for loss], a lot of sacks because of the confusion. And even though they're running a whole new defense, they have some experience, because a lot of those kids played a year ago."
Defensive coordinator Chris Rippon describes the Memphis offense as a "Texas/TCU offense," complete with triple-option and other wrinkles.
"They're doing with the run game what our offense does with the pass game," Rippon said. "And they're trying to, with their motions and formations, to develop their offensive line. They have some junior-college kids and some new backs and new terminology. They're trying to put less stress on that.
"What you have a difficult time doing is replicating the read plays and the triple-option timing, and who gets put in the 'island.' That's where their offense puts you, and it's such a perimeter game that now they can hit you up the middle because you're running sideline to sideline."
While this is a ground-heavy offense - 302 rushes vs. 191 passing attempts - there is a little Texas Tech thrown in. That comes at quarterback, where Jacob Karam transferred in from Lubbock and won the starting job.
He had limited game experience at Texas Tech, playing six games and going 9 of 17 for 104 yards and two touchdowns. That was going to stay limited - as West Virginia fans can testify, Karam wasn't going to unseat 4,000-yard passer Seth Doege for the starting job. But after Karam earned his degree, he was able to transfer to Memphis without sitting for a year.
Yes, Karam is a junior, meaning he graduated in three years. He did so magna cum laude in university studies/pre-law.
"He's a pretty sharp guy," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. "The thing we keep telling him is he's just got to continue to make the average play, every time. We're not looking for the spectacular."
The Tigers have had trouble moving the ball, only gaining 202 total yards last week in a 44-13 loss at Southern Methodist. Their season high is 399, just 35 yards more than Marshall's season low.
But they have Rippon's full attention. Then again, after watching Central Florida rack up 568 yards last week, Rippon is not eager to have his defense known for jump-starting the Memphis offense.
Once again, Marshall is crossing paths with one of two assistant coaches who worked all 10 years of "The Decade, The Dynasty" of the 1990s - Tim Billings.
Billings coaches the Tigers' defensive line after six seasons at Wake Forest. Those years were mostly productive, beginning with the Demon Deacons' Atlantic Coast Conference championship team of 2006. He tutored wide receivers in 2006-07 and defensive backs from 2008-11. He served as co-defensive coordinator in 2011.
He came to Wake Forest after a rough six-year stint as head coach at Southeast Missouri State. The Redhawks went 8-4 in 2002, but he finished his time at Cape Girardeau 25-43.
Those wins match Marshall's losses for the entire decade of the 1990s, against 114 victories. Billings' final act in Huntington was to lead the defense in the program's most accomplished season, the 13-0 record and No. 10 final national ranking in 1999.
The last time Billings coached against Marshall was his first game as a head coach, and it was ugly - with Byron Leftwich running the offense for the first time, the Herd hammered SEMO 63-7 in the 2000 opener.
The other assistant to work at Marshall every year in the 1990s is Mark Gale, still around as assistant athletic director for football operations.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.