Before USF’s primetime showdown with Memphis on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium, Oracle sports editor Jeff Odom caught up with Memphis beat reporter Tom Schad of The Commercial Appeal to break down the undefeated Tigers.
Jeff Odom: Memphis is off to its best start in 54 years, with a 4-0 record. How did coach Justin Fuente to turn a downtrodden program at a basketball school into a contender for 10-win seasons and conference championships in such a short period of time?
Tom Schad: “I heard Fuente address this on Monday’s (AAC) conference call, and I think his two go-to points are valid. He always says that he had a strong core group of kids in 2012 and 2013, and a core group of coaches that have provided some consistency and allowed everyone to be on the same page during his tenure.
Those two factors are huge, but I’d also mention two more. Fuente and his staff have done a remarkable job of finding and recruiting walk-ons. Their starting lineup on both sides of the ball is filled with them, and they have a tremendous quarterback in Paxton Lynch. The rebuild is always a little easier when you have a good quarterback.”
JO: Speaking of Lynch, he went from an under-the-radar recruit out of high school and struggling as a freshman to one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the AAC. What has been the key to his climb and success over the last couple seasons?
TS: “Lynch has always had the size and raw talent to be an NFL prospect. In the beginning, it was simply about learning the offense, adjusting to the speed of the college game and building chemistry with his receivers.
As time has gone on, you’ve seen him really master this offense. It’s helped, of course, that he’s had the same head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the whole time. He’s also grown incredibly comfortable with this group of receivers. Four of his top five targets returned from a year ago, and I think you see that comfort out there on the field.”
JO: Fuente mentioned USF’s defense — specifically its line — as one of his major concerns for Friday’s game. But the Tigers’ offense has had no problem scoring with 40 or more points in each of its last six games. Is there any way to slow down that potent attack?
TS: “Boy — it’s tough. The one thing about Memphis is that it’s capable of attacking your weakness. Lynch can nickel-and-dime you all the way down the field, but he can also throw a 60-yard bomb over your head. Focus on stopping the passing game, and now you’ve got as many as four different running backs running either between or outside of the tackles (not too many jet sweeps and reverses to wide receivers). The best way to slow it down is to slow the running game. Cincinnati did that last week, and Fuente admitted that it makes the offense very uncomfortable. It makes it tougher to run play-action stuff, which takes away a certain degree of deception.”
JO: Switching sides to Memphis’ defense. The Tigers are 110th nationally and had a hard time slowing Cincinnati down in its 53-46 victory Thursday as the Bearcats racked up a program-record 752 yards. Do you see that as a potential weak spot for the Bulls to exploit, or can the Tigers bounce back against a unit that has had its share of issues over the last couple seasons?
TS: “Yeah, it’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg question. Memphis’ defense has looked awful, but it’s also played two of the nation’s top offenses in the past two weeks. Did the Tigers struggle because those offenses are so good, or do the offenses look good on paper because the Tigers struggled? It’s tough to say. If recent history is any indication, USF will be able to put up a few big plays against this defense, but the defense will also create a few turnovers and come up with huge stops in the red zone.”
JO: Memphis enters as an 11-point favorite and — judging by its success coming in — could cruise in this one. But USF has won back-to-back AAC openers, over Cincinnati in 2013 and Connecticut last season. Do you think the Bulls have a chance in what could end up being critical game for beleaguered coach Willie Taggart on the national stage?
TS: “Oh, the Bulls certainly have a chance. They had two weeks to figure out how to slow Memphis’ offense and gash its defense. They’re at home. They’ve had good first-half showings against Power Five teams. I don’t expect this to be a blowout. In the end, it will come down to whether USF’s defense can stop Lynch, especially in the fourth quarter. Nobody has been able to do that thus far this year. Memphis’ defense has been shaky, and it could be shaky again Friday, but it won’t matter if Lynch and the offense put up 50 points.”