This Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, we'll have a rarity: a stop-what-you're-doing-and-pay-attention University of Memphis football game.
It's a matchup that makes memories. Memphis Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals. Put those words on a stadium scoreboard or television screen and a legion of Mid-South sports fans will stop what they're doing long enough to make another palm-sweating deposit into their collective memory bank. And the sport doesn't matter. You get the impression, after living in these parts a few years, that a televised thumb-wrestling showdown between the Tigers and Cardinals would trump the latest offering on ESPN 2.
The sad truth, though, is that these two rivals haven't met on the gridiron or basketball court in more than three years, not since the epic 2005 Conference USA basketball championship, when Darius Washington collapsed at the free-throw line having missed a pair of foul shots that would have given his Tigers a berth in the NCAA tournament. Not to be forgotten, though, is the last football game between Memphis and Louisville. Played merely four months before that basketball tilt, the Tiger-Cardinal game on November 4, 2004, remains the best Memphis football game of the decade. Oh heck, let's say it: the best Memphis football game of the century.
Played on a Thursday night in front of a national-television audience, Memphis and Louisville combined for 105 points and -- grab your seat -- nine lead changes. The teams were led on offense by players who would share C-USA's Offensive Player of the Year honors. Memphis tailback DeAngelo Williams carried the ball 26 times for 200 yards and scored on a 31-yard jaunt that gave the home team a 10-point lead early in the second quarter. Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns with nary an interception. Each team had a rusher and receiver surpass 100 yards. Memphis won the total-offense battle, 603 yards (you read that correctly) to 599, but Louisville, alas, had the ball at game's end, LeFors converting a two-point conversion with 37 seconds on the clock to give the bad guys a 56-49 win.
A year later, Louisville joined the Big East Conference, and there went a football rivalry that had seen 38 games in 44 years. This Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, that rivalry is reborn.
The Tigers will take the field looking to extend a winning streak to four games for the first time since 2003, when the fourth game in a five-game run happened to be a 37-7 drubbing of Louisville. The Memphis offense -- which looked rather pass-happy when the season opened -- has rediscovered the running game, with Curtis Steele having romped for more than 100 yards in each of the last three victories. Most promising of all, the Tigers (even with rookie quarterback Arkelon Hall) don't appear intimidated by deficits, having hung tough at home against Arkansas State after falling behind, then erasing a 10-point UAB lead in Birmingham.
And what of the Cardinals? They enter the game 2-2, having lost to another pair of basketball-first universities (Kentucky and Connecticut), while beating Tennessee Tech and Kansas State. Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell are every bit the "thunder and lightning" tandem at tailback the Tigers would like to consider Steele and Charlie Jones. Having given up 220 yards on the ground to UAB, Memphis will have to close some gaps to keep the Cardinal offense off the field.
Four years is too long between Tiger-Cardinal clashes. Each program would benefit from gatherings more frequent than presidential elections or Olympiads. But if Memphis and Louisville fans are going to be forced to quell the fiery emotions these two combatants tend to elicit, they'd do well to heed the wisdom of that ancient Roman sports fan, Ovid: "Bear patiently with a rival."