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Steele hopes 240-yard effort sparks Memphis turnaround

Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

Curtis Steele was embarrassed even telling the story.

That fact he hyperextended his knee while jumping up and down in dissatisfaction because a long run of his was called back was not something he wanted to continue to relive.

“It happened out of frustration,” Steele said. “I knew right away something was wrong. There was pain and I wasn’t able to cut. I felt pretty bad just knowing that I was injured like that.”

The injury happened against Middle Tennessee on Sept. 12 and cost Steele two full games and part of the Central Florida game two weeks ago. But after that UCF game, Steele said he knew he was ready to play. The following Sunday he wasn’t in pain and during practice he was moving like he was at the beginning of the season.

So when coach Tommy West threw Steele in as the starter against a UTEP team that was coming off a huge win over Houston, Steele knew he had a chance to make up for a stupid mistake.

“Earlier that week, I just had a feeling that I was going to have a big game and it was going to be a good week for us,” Steele said. “I just felt like we were going to come out and win.”

Steele rushed for a career-high 240 yards on 39 carries. His two rushing touchdowns helped the Tigers pull away in the fourth quarter. He also had a receiving touchdown in the first half. Most importantly, Steele helped his team achieve a much-needed 35-20 victory as the Tigers attempt to dig themselves out of the cellar of Conference USA East.

“We got Curtis back, and we looked like a totally different team,” West said. “I thought Curtis played great.”

Coming into the game, the Tigers' offense was floundering. Memphis ranked 100th nationally in scoring (19.8 points per game), 96th in total offense (327.8 yards per game) and 92nd in rushing (114.6 ypg). The Tigers had lost their games by an average of 19.25 points.

A year ago, this same offense, led by Steele, ranked 22nd in the nation in rushing with 194.85 ypg.

West said by getting the running game going, the Tigers were able to open up the passing game and get quarterback Will Hudgens some confidence.

Steele said it felt like the team from a year ago for the first time this season.

“There were gaps on the field that I could run through, but I also had to make some people miss,” Steele said. “It felt a lot like last year. I had a lot of thoughts coming back from last year. It just really felt good getting back out there.”

Last season, after three Memphis quarterbacks suffered major injuries in late October, the offense turned to Steele to carry it. He did so admirably and helped his team to six wins and a berth in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

Steele now is hoping that his effort in last week’s game will spark a turnaround for this year’s 2-4 team.

“I feel like the team can rally around my effort because they know we have a run game now,” Steele said. “It’s going to be easier for our offense as a whole. If you can establish a run game, you can easily throw the ball down the field.

“I just know that I just have to be there for when they call on me. Just be there to make my play and everything else will work out.”