The Beautiful Stupidity of Memphis Football
Clear eyes. Dumb shit. Can't lose.
There are many kickass tiger facts. This is one.
Tigers, like many big cats, have spots on the backs of their ears called ocelli. Their white coloring makes them look like eyes from a distance. You’ve probably looked at hundreds of pictures of tigers in your lifetime and never noticed them.
Why do tigers have ocelli? Scientists have two ideas.
1) In the animal kingdom, eyes = intimidation. Granted, tigers are already intimidating. But if you were constantly engaged in life-or-death situations, you’d probably take all the help you could get.
2) If you think this badass creature you’re looking at literally has eyes in the back of its head, you’d be forgiven for finding its sightlines confusing. The ocelli can be disorienting for your standard animal.
So, to review, they’re intimidating from a distance and confusing at a glance.
Reminds me of a certain college football team.
The 2019 Memphis Tigers are, above all else, a dumbass football team. And I wouldn’t want them any other way.
At every moment — even while you’re reading this sentence — Memphis plays with fire. Their former blue chip quarterback is marred by incomprehensible inconsistency. Their heralded freshman running back has the dimensions of a well-built middle schooler. And their defense is full of flashy athletes that love nothing more than giving up massive plays.
But this season, Memphis got good at flicking their tiger-striped zippo onto their opponents. At his best, the quarterback tosses more dimes than a pissy cashier. The running back is flanked by a slew of other playmakers that lighten his load. And those athletes on defense make more than enough plays to cover for their imperfections.
The result? Likely the best football team in school history. 11 regular season wins is a school record, and along the way the Tigers bested a host of talented challengers, including SMU, Navy, and Cincinnati. The lone imperfection came in Philadelphia against Temple, where only an erroneous officiating mistake kept the Tigers from attempting a game-winning field goal. It’s only fitting that a team with few regards for rules would be felled by officials. As these things go.
So, categorically, the 2019 Memphis Tigers were extremely good at playing football. Though, in any season, there are many college football teams that are also good at playing football. The difference? No team, successful or not, played with the chaotic vigor that Memphis did. And with their terribly scorched hands, they shaped something truly special.
Take the game that unfolded in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday. Cincinnati, who was playing the Tigers for the second time in eight days, had a game plan that a sensible team would use: run the ball consistently, utilize long passes when Memphis packed the box, and stand strong against the interior running game.
Memphis’ game plan? “Lmao, fuck it.”
The Tigers opened the game with a surprise onside kick. Cincinnati, a reasonable and responsible football team, signaled for a fair catch on the kick, making the eventual Memphis recovery null and void.
The rest of the first half played out similarly. Cincinnati smashed into Memphis time and time again, with the Tigers doing little to respond.
Three moments kept them in it:
-With 2:40 left in the first quarter, Antonio Gibson (hollowed be thy name) cut, then cut, then cut again for a preposterous 65-yard touchdown run.
-Then, six minutes later, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder ripped off a 30+ yard run deep into Memphis territory, only for Chris Claybrooks to karate chop the ball at the end of the play, giving possession back to the Tigers.
-Not long before half, with the sun low in the Tennessee skies, a Cincinnati receiver lost track of a sure-fire long touchdown catch as the ball bonked him in the facemask.
What could’ve been a 28-3 game at half was instead 14-10. Memphis had suckered the Bearcats into a dumbass football game. And the Tigers wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
For all the plaudits given to Memphis football players this season, no one deserves more adoration than receiver Damonte Coxie, who was likely constructed in a lab to make me love him. A commanding 6’3” with soft hands and a distaste for the mere concept of cornerbacks, Coxie once again showed up when Memphis needed him most.
In Saturday’s game, only five Memphis players caught passes. And Coxie was the only one with more than three catches and over 40 yards. In the midst of a vintage “Bad Brady” game from quarterback Brady White, Coxie was the steadying influence White and the offense needed throughout the second half. Time and again after do-nothing runs on first and second down, Coxie tore holes in the Cincinnati secondary to keep crucial drives alive.
He would finish with nine catches for 165 yards on the day. All of them necessary. All of them earned.
Thanks to two long field goals by kicker Riley Patterson (one 52 yards, another 50), Memphis managed to keep the game close well into the fourth quarter. That’s when, down 1 with 4:23 remaining, Memphis uncorked a season-defining ten-play drive that resulted in a 6-yard touchdown catch by Gibson. One defensive stop later, Memphis exited victory formation as 2019’s American Athletic Conference champions.
Was it easy? Hell no. Pat Taylor nearly fumbled the ball away on the second play of Memphis’ eventual game-winning drive, and Cincinnati made it all the way to the Tigers’ 26-yard line on their final attempt.
But no matter how the team fares against Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, I’m glad that I’ve treasured every moment from this Memphis season. In fact, catch me at a small artisanal café overlooking the French countryside pouring myself a glass of 2019 Memphis football, swirling it around to appreciate its aroma, taking a careful yet indulgent sip, and sinking into my chair as I let the gentle breeze swirl around me.
Greatness is, above all else, subjective. Winning 12 games is fun, but the greatness of this Memphis team was not in its wins and losses. Rather, it was in the way they collected them. Few teams in the nation were more themselves (for better or worse), and it’s largely coincidental that Memphis’ formula resulted in success.
They were intimidating from a distance, confusing at a glance, and perfect in their imperfection.