Tennessee Stat Book
MEMPHIS - When Tommy West spent one season as Memphis defensive coordinator in 2000, his defense set a tone . . . and delivered its share of hits.
Nine years ago that unit ranked fifth nationally overall and first in rushing defense.
As Memphis (2-6) prepares for Saturday's cross-state matchup against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, West is attempting to find ways to improve a struggling rush defense. In the past five games, the Tigers have allowed 200 or more rushing yards to four opponents. In last week's 38-19 Conference USA loss to East Carolina, the Tigers yielded a season-high 275 yards.
A rush defense that held nine of its 11 opponents to fewer than 100 yards under West in 2000 is giving up 198 yards per game. It's a total that ranks 105th nationally of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
"I'm disappointed in our rush defense,'' said West, in his ninth season as head coach of Memphis. "It was bad in the East Carolina game. We have to get that corrected.''
What creates a sense of urgency this week for West is Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty.
Hardesty, a punishing, physical back, is averaging 105 yards per game to rank 19th nationally and fourth in the SEC. Behind Hardesty, the Vols are averaging 172 yards rushing per game and have scored 12 rushing touchdowns.
"(Hardesty) is as good a player as we've played against,'' West said. "(And) I think we've played against some really good backs.''
The Tigers have played against four of the top 31 rushers in the nation. Darius Marshall, of Marshall, ranks second nationally with a 136-yard average. He gained 203 against the Tigers. Of the other three - 12th-ranked Donald Buckram of UTEP, 30th-ranked Dominique Lindsay of East Carolina and 31st-ranked Damion Fletcher of Southern Miss - only Lindsay has rushed for 100 or more yards against Memphis. He had 139.
But opponents, as a team, are getting their yards on the ground, enough to keep the Tigers from breaking out of their tailspin.
Injuries haven't helped. The Tigers have lost four secondary players for the season and cornerback D.A. Griffin will miss Saturday's game with an ankle injury. Up front, Memphis lost Justin Thompson (knee) two weeks ago just as he was emerging, while veteran defensive end Jada Brown suffered a neck injury last week against East Carolina and will not play Saturday.
"We'll just have to make it work,'' West said.
Because of the rash of injuries, West said he'll look at offensive lineman Kellen Heard - a former Texas A&M defensive lineman - at nose tackle this week.
In addition to Hardesty, the Tigers expect freshman Bryce Brown to be a running threat, too. Brown has rushed for 345 yards and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
"Both of those guys are excellent running backs,'' Tigers linebacker Winston Bowens said. "They are kind of the heart of their offense. Everything revolves around them. (Hardesty) has to be one of the top backs in the SEC from what I've seen. He runs the ball hard, but he's very elusive for a big guy.''
West's initial defense at Memphis held eight of its 11 opponents to fewer than 20 points. Every FBS opponent this season has scored at least 20.
"That (first) defense was really good against the pass first of all,'' West said. "We had great corners and we were able to play a lot of man coverage and put an extra guy in the box all the time. We knew you couldn't beat our corners. (Marcus Smith) and (Michael) Stone were great cover guys. (Idrees Bashir) was a really good free and (Glenn) Sumter was a great hitter at strong safety.
"I don't know how good we were in the front seven. We were OK. Our linebackers were young guys except for Kamal (Shakir), but we were really good in the secondary.''
West said the current defense isn't strong enough to play a similar style. Instead, he'll attempt to tweak some things in advance of Saturday's matchup.
"We are going to do some things, scheme-wise, to try and help them,'' West said of his injury-ravaged defense. "And to be honest, we'll have to play at a quicker tempo than we've been playing. And we've got to play with more intensity.
"That's what disappointed me. We didn't act like we wanted to get out there and play defense. But we'll get that (corrected). We won't ever go on that field again and not be excited to play defense.''