Memphis coach Justin Fuente realizes turning around the Tigers football program is a challenge.
He got another reminder Wednesday night that hurdles remain.
The Tigers (1-6, 0-4 American Athletic Conference) were held to 232 yards of offense, hampered by dropped passes, in a 34-21 loss to Cincinnati.
”This is a big mountain we’re climbing,” Fuente said. ”To build this program, we had to take a step up in competition. It’s a tremendous challenge.”
Memphis’ Paxton Lynch completed 17 of 33 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, but the Tigers struggled on offense at key times.
One of Memphis’ offensive problems involved the Tiger receivers’ inability to hold onto the ball. Lynch’s passing stats could have been much better, but receivers mishandled at least a handful of catchable passes, thwarting Memphis’ opportunities.
”You’ve got to keep plugging away,” Fuente said. ”Our margin for error is not very big when we play a really good team. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be pretty darn good execution-wise. (Lynch) has just got to keep plugging away and putting the ball in there.”
Brendon Kay threw for 321 yards and a touchdown to lead Cincinnati. Kay was 27 of 35 to help the Bearcats (6-2, 3-1) win their third straight. Anthony McClung finished with 98 yards receiving and a touchdown, and Shaq Washington had 11 catches for 96 yards.
Tion Green scored a pair of touchdowns, the final one from 3 yards with 1:26 remaining provided enough of a buffer after Memphis got within a touchdown.
”We just try to stay even keel,” said running back Ralph David Abernathy, who had a 19-yard touchdown run in the first half. ”We try to keep level as possible. We don’t try to get too high; we don’t try to get too low. When it is time to go out and execute, that’s what we do.”
Jordan Luallen also had a touchdown on the ground for the Bearcats.
One of Lynch’s passes that wasn’t dropped was an interception by Cincinnati’s Deven Drane at the Memphis 25 with just under 9 minutes left.
The Bearcats would convert the turnover into a 24-yard scoring pass from Kay to McClung for a 27-14 lead with 7:23 remaining
That was an important touchdown because Memphis would put together a 75-yard drive and cut the lead to 27-21 when Brandon Hayes scored on a circuitous 31-yard run, ending with a dive from the 3-yard line to the pylon.
That was as close as Memphis could get. Cincinnati’s final drive covered 61 yards and took almost 4 minutes before Green scored his second touchdown.
The teams traded early touchdowns with the Tigers benefiting from a short punt leading to a 7-yard scoring pass from Lynch to Tevin Jones.
Cincinnati answered on a 13-yard run by Luallen, a fullback who was running out of a wildcat formation. Part of the reason for Luallen being in that position was Kay was on the sidelines recovering from a blow to the midsection two plays earlier. Kay has suffered through a myriad of injuries this season.
”He got hit pretty hard,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. ”He got knocked around, but he’s a tough kid. If we can get him 100 percent, there’s no telling how good he can be.”
Cincinnati allowed Memphis a mere 58 yards of offense in the first half, including 12 in the second quarter. Of those 12, only 1 was on the ground.
”When they were in man coverage, we couldn’t make the play,” Fuente said. ”That’s kind of a synopsis of the game really. If you look at the one-on-one battles, we didn’t win enough of those, whether it be man coverage in the secondary versus our secondary with their receivers or in the offensive and defensive line.”