LOUISVILLE -- Coming out of the locker room, a smiling Derrick Ballard had two. So did Greg Harper. Will Hyden was happy with one. Clearly, the senior core of the formidable U of M defense was feeling fine. It was their day of vindication, after all.
As they filed out of the locker room underneath the stands at Papa John's Stadium after Saturday's historic victory, nearly all the U of M players were carrying the same thing: extra-large boxes of Papa John's pizza for consumption on the buses taking them to the airport.
The symbolism was more than a little appropriate. On this gray wintry afternoon in Louisville, in the stadium that Papa John's built, the Memphis football Tigers well and truly ate the Cardinals' lunch.
The U of M began what Coach Tommy West has called "the Big East part of our schedule" in stunning fashion, with a resounding 37-7 victory, marking the first time the Tigers have won in Louisville in two decades and the first time they'd won four in a row since 1994. Those of us who have been in the trenches since the Lloyd Patterson era -- his 1976 team were the last Tigers to win seven games -- have a real sense now of going where no men have gone before.
Indeed, the 2,000 or so delirious U of M fans who'd made the journey (by midway through the fourth quarter, they outnumbered the Louisville faithful still remaining in the stadium) were strangely quiet, all things considered. At first I thought it odd. Then I figured it out: The day's remarkable events had truly rendered us all speechless.
Bobby Petrino was in the same boat. At his post-game press conference, the Louisville head coach looked like he'd been hit by a truck. "I knew this game would be a challenge," Coach Petrino told reporters, "but I never thought it'd be like this."
Welcome to the club, Coach. If you'd told me it would have been "like this," I would have bought you a year's supply of Papa John's.
What a month for the ages for Tiger football fans this November has been! Four victories, three of them on the road, all of them routs. Over that period, Danny Wimprine hasn't thrown a single interception, establishing his credentials as one of the nation's premier quarterbacks. And DeAngelo Williams? Well, the 179 all-purpose yards he racked up Saturday should ensure his continued reign as the national leader in all-purpose yardage. By game's end, even the Louisville media were using hushed tones when speaking his name. "How'd he ever end up in Memphis?" I overheard one dejected Cardinal scribbler asking another.
But this game belonged to the defense. The Cardinals were averaging 34 points a game. Memphis held them to a touchdown, and even that was the product of a blocked punt. Louisville scored first; U of M defensive end Eric Taylor came back four minutes later with a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown to level the score. The rest, as they say, is history.
Speaking of history, those of us at Papa John's witnessed, I feel certain, the best 30 defensive minutes in Tiger football history. The defense's second- and third-quarter stats are mind-boggling. Playing against C-USA's number-one offense, the U of M defense held Louisville to 67 total yards and a negative four yards rushing. Tiger tackles were crisp, the pass coverage was suffocating, and the Cardinal offense looked totally lost. The AD's office could do worse than use that half-hour as the 2003 season's highlight film. Why spend money on film editing?
Now the challenge will be, as West said after the game, for this very special Tiger team to ignore its press clippings. When asked if he regretted not having top-ranked TCU on this year's C-USA schedule, West grimaced and said, "We're a good team, yes, but someone will come and plonk us if we get arrogant."
These Tigers have many reasons to feel cocky, but history, as they say, is a great teacher. West should have daily readings this week at practice from the U of M media guide, just to keep the guys honest.
A reading from the Book of Tiger Tribulation, Chapter 32, Verse 10:
"Question: When was the last time the U of M won four consecutive games by 17 or more points? Answer: Never."
Oops. That's the truth. These 2003 Tigers have done something never achieved by any team in the program's 90-year history. Maybe they are a little bit special, after all.
Sorry, Coach. I was just trying to be helpful. Honest. Just make 'em do a few extra laps this week and I think they'll be fine.
Kenneth Neill is the publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of the Flyer.