TAKING IT FROM THE TOP (TIGER FOOTBALL EDITION) 

The football Tigers finally win a big ne, with a little help from Marie Levaux.

PUTTING A HEX ON THE REBELS The chickens did it. That's it, I'm certain. The rubber chickens. Those of you who were among the half-hundred thousand at the sun-drenched Liberty Bowl Saturday afternoon may have an idea of what I'm talking about. It was around two o'clock, and the Tigers had just stumble-bumbed their way through a horrid third quarter, putting on as inept a display of football as you'd ever like to see. The Ole Miss Rebels, meanwhile, after some fits and starts, seemed to be putting their engines on cruise-control, having scored 17 unanswered points in the quarter, limiting the U of M to just three yards total offense over the third-quarter's first 14 minutes. The game seemed to be slipping away, ever so relentlessly. All around me in the stands, Tiger loyalists had that same glum, resigned expression of their faces that is by now, well, traditional. This script was all too familiar. On this sunny day, U of M fans watched their heroes come out of the gate strong, give away their early lead with dumb mistakes, rally to take it back again just before the half, then barely show up for the third quarter, falling a couple of touchdowns behind an Ole Miss squad that looked like it had matters safely in hand. That's when it happened. That's when we got out the chickens. Despite its considerable national reputation, a well-known fried-chicken company has this year come up with a promotional gimmick for Memphis that is goofy, hard to understand, and, well, just plain bone-headed. Evidently, this promo will now run between the third and fourth quarters of U of M home games. At least I hope so. And so should you. If you didn't see it, the promotion/game goes something this: three contestants, armed each with three rubber chickens, are posted five or ten yards from a large barrel-bucket placed to the right of the North End goalposts. The participants then try to throw the chickens -- yes, I said rubber chickens, the long-necked kind, not footballs or frisbies -- into the barrel. The winner who delivers the most chickens on target gets, you guessed it, buckets of fried (hopefully not rubber) chicken. Here I was, sitting in the gloom as the teams changed ends, the Tigers down 31-17, wondering absent-mindedly what this chicken silliness was about, but, more importantly, wondering what in the hell I'd write about in this column. After all, while covering the football Tigers, the sad excrutiating events of the past two losing seasons have caused me to use up just about every metaphor for painful defeat that I can imagine. I was, truly, at a loss for words. Thankfully, the rubber chickens gave me an out. I figured I'd write something cute about how the Tiger football program was like a rubber chicken (I had the word "indigestable" floating around in my mind), and then... And then something very peculiar happened . The U of M opened the fourth quarter with a razzle-dazzle pass play involving Danny Wimprine passing back on his left to Chris Kelley, who passed back across to the far right to a sprinting Wimprine, who scampered 35 yards deep into Ole Miss territory. This little Frank Merriwell number set up a D'Angelo Williams TD power romp around the left side, on the very next play. Suddenly, the pendulum was swinging back in the Tigers' direction. The score was 34-28, and there was all to play for. Suddenly, inexplicably, the Tigers took their game to a whole new level. Danny Wimprine (the ESPN tv analysts gave both him and Williams more positive verbal ink than I've ever heard given nationally to U of M football players) could do no wrong, throwing nary an incompletion in the final quarter, and wracking up, by game's end, 355 all-time record-tying passing yards. Eli Manning, the media Wunderkind, just as suddenly, could do no right. His receivers dropped balls they should have caught, and he seemed increasingly disheartened as the quarter progressed. Meanwhile, around the six-minute mark, Wimprine magically escaped getting tackled in his own end zone, only to throw a Hail-Mary bomb in the general direction of Tavarious Davis, and presto, what had once been lost was suddenly found. Throw in three fourth-quarter field goals (the game's unsung hero, in my opinion, was holder Ryan Ivy; those watching tv saw on the replays how adeptly he helped turn a couple of floppy snaps into Stephen Gostkowski three-pointers), and there we were, staring with disbelief at the scoreboard, as it read Memphis 44, Ole Miss 34, with less than two minutes to play. Whodathunkit? Soon, Tommy West was raising his clenched fists into the air, the ecstatic crowd was tumbling onto the field, and grown men were weeping around me. That's when I remembered the rubber chickens. And I figured it all out. You see, I think a very convincing case can be made that this Famous Victory -- not to detract from the players and coaching staff's achievement -- was partly the product of an elaborate voodoo hex, perhaps one concocted by unnamed persons in the U of M marketing department. The plan was simple. Go to New Orleans and get some "stuff." (Marie Levaux delivered those chickens, of that I'm certain.) Then get some folks to throw 'em around in the air, releasing appropriately bad ju-ju into the North End Zone -- in which direction Ole Miss was about to march. Sound far-fetched? Well, how many Rebel points were scored in the North End Zone in the fourth quarter? You know the answer. Zero. Not a single one. Need more evidence? Remember when Taye Biddle dropped that perfectly-thrown Eli Manning pass that would have stretched the Rebels then-shrinking lead back up to 10 points? Sure you do: that's the pass even you or I could have caught. Well, think about where he was when all that happened. Did he just "happen" to be no more than ten yards away from where that voodoo-chicken-bucket had stood, just half an hour before? And think hard, conversely, about where exactly Danny Wimprine was when he was nearly nailed for a safety. Did he just "happen" to be near the very same spot? Do you think there just might have been some mojo magic floating around when he launched heavenward The Pass to Taverious Davis? No, I am not usually given to seeking supernatural reasons for natural events. But, hey, when you haven't beaten your arch-rival neighbor for nearly decade, you should seek out truth wherever you can find it. One thing seems certain -- Tommy West's hard work and honest effort over the past two seasons look like they are finally reaping dividends, with or without rubber chickens. But as Coach West would be the first to say, let's not get carried away. Given The Commercial Appeal's tendency towards hyberbole these days, I wasn't surprised when I picked up the Sunday paper to see a page-one banner headline screaming "Great Leap Forward." Don't be fooled, folks; September 6th was a fine day for Tiger football, and one that will bring no end of disillusioned fans back into the fold, but let's remember who we were playing. Yes, we managed to get a serious monkey off our back, but don't forget that the team we defeated had been very lucky last weekend to squeak by perennial SEC doormat Vanderbilt. A team whose own quality has yet to be fully determined. Ole Miss is no Miami. Any resemblance between this victory and the famous 1996 one over UT -- a then sixth-ranked powerhouse whose loss to a 26-point underdog that November Saturday may well have cost the Vols a national championship -- is purely cosmetic. THAT victory was a milestone -- one that the ESPN pundits would eventually include in their top ten upsets of the decade. This one over Ole Miss? Well, it's a little bit like wild sex with a woman whom you know isn't a keeper. A great time was had by all, but we shouldn't be looking too closely for long-term implications... But we'll take it. Finally beating the Rebels again after nearly a decade in the wilderness sure is a nice step in the right direction. And it definitely beats the alternative. Just make sure to keep bringing the rubber chickens.

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