LOUISVILLE -- Coming out of the locker room, a smiling Derrick Ballard had two. So did Greg Harper. Will Hyden was happy with just 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 Stadiun 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 for the flight home to Memphis.
The symbolism was more than a little appropriate. For on this gray wintry afternoon in Louisville, in the stadium that Papa Johns 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, along with 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 delirious thousand or two U of M fans whod made the journey north -- 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.
At least Bobby Petrino was in the same boat. At his post-game press conference, the Louisville head coach looked like hed been hit by a truck. "I knew this game would be a challenge," Coach Petrino candidly told reporters after the game, "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 Johns. Around the worlds, even.
What a month for the ages for Tiger football fans this last one 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, while establishing his credentials as one of the nation's premier quarterbacks. And D'Angelo Williams? Well, the 179 all-purpose yards he racked up Saturday should insure his continued reign as the national leader in all-purpose yardage. By game's end, even the usually crusty Louisville media was using hushed tones when speaking his name. Howd he ever end up in Memphis? I overhead one dejected Cardinal scribbler telling another.
But this game, of all the victories this season, belonged to the defense. The Cardinals were averaging 34 points a game until today, when Memphis held them to a touchdown, and even that was the product of a blocked punt. In fact, 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. Thirty unanswered Tiger points. Remarkably, the Cardinals never set again got past midfield until the final minute of the third quarter.
Speaking of history, those of us lucky enough to be at Papa John's today witnessed, I feel certain, the best thirty defensive minutes in Tiger football history. I wasnt around in the Sixties or early Seventies, but somebody let me know if a U of M defensive unit ever performed better in a games midsection.
The defenses second and third quarter stats were and are mind-boggling. Playing against C-USA's number-one offense, remember, the U of M defense held Louisville to -- ready? -- 67
total offensive yards. And a negative 4 yards rushing. This was defensive co-ordinator Joe Lee Dunnes finest half-hour, maybe in his entire distinguished career. Tiger tackles were crisp, the pass coverage was suffocational, and the Cardinal offense looked totally lost, when it looked at all. In fact, given how well the Tigers played on both sides of the ball, the AD's office could do worse than use that entire half hour as the 2003 seasons highlight film. Why spend money on film editing?
Now the challenge will be, as Coach Tommy 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. Coach West should have daily readings this week at practice from the U of M media guide, just to keep the guys honest. He can cite chapter and verse from The Book of Tiger Tribulation, explaining how we've down so long we think it's up. But things sure do look different from this perspective.
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?
Oops. Thats actually the truth. These 2003 Tigers have done something never achieved by any team in the programs ninety-year history. Maybe they are that 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 theyll be fine.
Kenneth Neill is the publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of
The Memphis Flyer.