Football Sports

By the numbers: Memphis boasts experience and talent

The Cougars will need to protect the ball against the scrappy defense of the Tigers on Thursday night. Memphis ranks No. 4 in the nation having already forced 11 fumbles in 2017. | File Photo/The Cougar

Part one of two: The second edition breaking down Memphis’ performance as a team this season will be released Thursday. 

Following Saturday’s inexplicable loss to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, the Cougars return to TDECU Stadium Thursday after a short week of preparation to face the Memphis Tigers.

Memphis returns with the vast majority of its major contributors from last season, and they will be looking for a repeat of last year’s success against the Cougars in Tennessee. Few will forget the 44-48 defeat Houston was handed the day after Thanksgiving, where the players not only lost the game — but also their coach days later.

Here’s a quick look at how the Cougars’ opponent stacks up this year:

Ferguson dominant again

Returning as the starting quarterback for the second consecutive season is senior Riley Ferguson.

Although not boasting remarkable running ability, the 6-foot-4-inch senior is safely considered among the nation’s top QBs when it comes to throwing the ball. During a breakout season last year, Ferguson finished among the top 20 in the nation at his position by averaging 284 yards, 2.5 passing TDs and a 152.6 quarterback rating.

From the looks of it, the senior has no plans to let up on his production in 2017.

Ferguson currently ranks among the 10 best passers in the NCAA with 3.2 passing scores a game, alongside placing top 20 by averaging more than 23 completions per game resulting in over 300 yards per contest. Keep in mind that these stats include a jaw-dropping seven TD performance at UConn, five of which came in the first two quarters — tying former Tiger great Paxton Lynch’s school record.

It’s Miller time

With all the accolades one can award Riley Ferguson, it’s reasonable to assume he might’ve struggled to post those numbers if not for his favorite target, senior wideout Anthony Miller.

Having placed among the nation’s top-15 receivers in receptions, receiving yards and scores per game in 2016, the former walk-on is continuing to make his mark in 2017. Ferguson and Miller have connected 45 times for 606 yards and nine touchdowns in the duo’s final run together.

Miller’s frequent end zone makes him No. 5 out of more than 450 FBS receivers in scoring efficiency.

In the Tiger’s previous two games, the near-telepathic chemistry of Ferguson and Miller was on full display with the duo connecting 25 times — six of which were made in the end zone.

A second favorite target of the senior QB is sophomore tight end Joey Magnifico.  Despite securing only 15 catches up to this point in the season, the big-bodied sophomore converted three of these receptions into TDs, ranking him No. 33 among all FBS pass catchers in scores per play.

Versatile kick returner poses threat

Although Ferguson, Miller and Magnifico have provided the biggest spark to the offense, sophomore returner Tony Pollard is arguably the most dangerous playmaker on the Tiger squad.

Similar to the Cougars’ D’Eriq King, Pollard uses his innate athletic ability and unique versatility to provide contributions on both offense and special teams.

As a freshman in 2016, Pollard returned 38 kicks for 1,068 yards, including two return TDs. Complementing his special team’s efforts, the sophomore caught 29 passes and rushed the ball 31 times resulting in three scores and 457 yards from scrimmage.

Now in his second season, the 5-foot-11 Memphis-native has exploded for 472 kick return yards and matched his return TD mark of a year ago despite just 12 opportunities. His 39.3-yard average is the second best mark among all players.

Beyond that, the sophomore has seen an increased role in the offense, contributing 250 yards from scrimmage including two receiving scores — maintaining status quo as one of the most versatile offensive weapons on the Memphis roster.

Pass-catching backfield

Memphis does not pride themselves on efficiently running the ball, but its running backs are extremely dangerous in catching passes out of the backfield.

In 2016, the team’s three primary backs reeled in at least 10 catches each and finished the season with 41 as a unit. The trend has been continued in 2017 with 24 running back receptions to this point.

When Memphis does rush the ball, most of the rushing load is evenly distributed between sophomores Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. Both had impressive freshman campaigns that consisted of a combined 1,028 rushing yards and 10 TDs on the ground.

Their production is carrying over into the new season, having already accumulated a combined 849 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in addition to a receiving TD each.

All in all, Henderson finds himself ranking among the nation’s 10 best RBs with about eight yards per carry while his running mate, Taylor Jr., is top 50 in yards per reception with 12.4.

Scrappy defense, turnover reliant

Although allowing above-average marks in both yards and scores, the Memphis defense relies on generating turnovers — especially fumbles — to get stops.

The Tiger defensive unit has already recovered nine opponent fumbles, with linebacker Curtis Akins and defensive back Tito Windham delivering two forced fumbles each.

Yet, the top overall contributor on defense is sophomore DB Austin Hall.

The 6-foot-2 corner has generated a team-high 44 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, three pass breakups and interceptions, including two against Navy last week.

Between the elite talent the Tigers have on offense and the scrappy defense, the Cougars will need one of their best showings of the season to return to their winning ways.

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