The last time the Memphis Tigers ventured to Neyland Stadium was in 2006 when Tennessee dominated the visiting Tigers 41-7. Memphis has only beaten the Vols once, when it shocked UT for the Vols’ only non-conference loss in 1996, but the Tigers travel to Neyland on Saturday hoping to snag the program’s first-ever win in Knoxville.
The Tigers are currently 2-6 and must finish out the season undefeated to become eligible for a bowl bid. Injuries have been a major issue this season for Memphis, who is missing four starters from its secondary, along with quarterback Tyler Bass, who was knocked out for the season in only his second game as a starter.
“I don’t like to make excuses with injuries,” Memphis coach Tommy West said. “But defensively we have a lot of people out. I was looking at it earlier today, and we have six or seven guys that are out on our defense.”
Although Memphis’ offense suffered several injuries, the Tigers have withstood issues on the defensive side of the ball throughout the season. Memphis will look to find rhythm on offense to carry the team.
West acknowledged that many of the SEC’s best offenses have sputtered against the Vols’ defense, but he thinks the Tigers’ spread-style offense may be an advantage.
“It will be interesting to see because a lot of those teams (from the SEC) are built more for power,” West said. “We spread you out and flip you around, so we’ll see.”
The Tigers have one of the top playmakers in the country in senior Duke Calhoun. Calhoun ranks 16th in the nation in receiving yards despite playing with three different quarterbacks this year.
“I think Duke is playing faster than he’s played since he’s been here,” West said. “He’s playing really well right now.”
Calhoun said he is looking forward to the competition Tennessee’s defense, led by All-American safety Eric Berry, will provide.
“I can’t wait to meet him (Berry), and I hope it’s going to be a great game,” Calhoun said.
Senior running back Curtis Steele said he thinks the biggest issue the offense will face is finishing out drives.
“We’ve just got to finish in the red zone,” Steele said. “Instead of getting field goals, maybe get (to) score some touchdowns.”
West added that turnovers will be critical in deciding the outcome of Saturday’s game.
“Our guys have got to learn not to make mistakes,” West said. “We took one team up there, and they made mistakes, and the game got out of hand early.”
Steele agreed the team needed to focus on the “little things” going into the game.
“Our main point is going to be focusing this week and on the little things that we have to do,” Steele said.
Turnovers prevented Memphis from keeping pace with East Carolina in its last game, where the Tigers ultimately lost to ECU 38-19. In that same week, Tennessee used two early turnovers to take a two-touchdown lead against South Carolina six minutes into the game.
Memphis’ defense will look to keep Tennessee out of the end zone as much as possible, but with defensive lineman Jada Brown and defensive back D.A. Griffin reserved to the sideline because of injuries, West acknowledged it will be difficult to slow the Vols down.
Kickoff between the Vols and Tigers is at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU.