BRAVE NEW WORLD
It's an ill wind that blows hot, I remember thinking to myself, while standing in the parking lot just south of the Liberty Bowl at high noon Saturday, a parking lot that the blue-clad U of M faithful had turned into a mini-Grove for the occasion. The football Tigers were about to attempt winning an eighth game for the first season in thirty, and the mood was decidedly upbeat. But the wind was spooky, not the cold biting kind you'd expect in November, but something different, twisting, turning, swirling in all directions.
"Wait'll you see how crazy it gets in the stadium," Drew Pairamore, standing beside me inside a particularly festive tent, observed. Pairamore should know; he spent three seasons in the early 1990s as the Tiger punter, where he learned to be wary of days like this one down at ground level.
Sure enough, the tempest spiraled and gusted inside the Liberty Bowl that afternoon, like an invisible wooden spoon stirring all the contents, which included two highly-regarded junior quarterbacks, each of whom would not count this among their better days. Danny Wimprine braved the fickle winds in decidedly worse fashion than his Cincinnati counterpart, having a real stinker, perhaps the worst game of his Tiger career. But at a fateful moment midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bearcats nursing a 16-14 lead, Gino Guidugli launched his own aerial misfire, a pass that veered a good ten yards off course, and into the waiting arms of ecstatic Tiger safety Wesley Smith, who scampered down the siudeline and inside the Cincinnati 10 yard line. The U of M punched it in three plays later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Eight victories. Whodathunkit, especially after the disheartening loss to UAB back in early October? Certainly not those who have spent two decades in the football wilderness, fans who have known more heartbreak than a hundred cardiologists. The Tigers won ugly, to be sure, but we'll take it. The U of M has all too much experience with losing well, with style and grace, and with being the best bad football team in America.
Ah, but back to the ill wind. Such was the havoc it wreaked upon Wimprine's passing abilities that the Tigers came out after halftime with a revised game plan, one built around a simple premise: give the ball to The Franchise. And give it to him they did, play after play. DeAngelo Williams racked up his usual mega-yardage (and his tenth consecutive 100-yard game) before Fate intervened. Going to the well perhaps once too often, the Tiger coaching staff grimaced right alongside DeAngelo when his knee popped at the one-yard-line, and his storybook 2003 season came to what is likely to be an abrupt conclusion.
The Franchise's injury was eerily similar to the one that befell another franchise player back in 1993, when, also in the next-to-last game of the season, Steve Matthews (to my mind still the best quarterback in U of M history;sorry, Danny, after Saturday, you still have some work to do) also dove into the middle of the line and ended his season instantly. Breaking his leg in two places, Matthews was never the same, never having the NFL career he was on course to enjoy. Happily, DeAngelo's injury looks less severe, and it's likely he'll be back next year to build on his already certain reputation as the greatest running back in Tiger football history.
Williams is truly a joy to watch; I can never make up my mind if he reminds me more of Gale Sayers or Tony Dorsett, but let's just say he moves in pretty elite company. His misdirection skills are the best I've ever seen; if you haven't been out to see him in person yet, make sure you do next year, for that may be the last chance you get. Williams is the Penny Hardaway of Memphis football.
But that'll be next year, more than likely, and this year still has two games to go, now that a U of M bowl bid is a certainty. Those contests promise to be a bit of a struggle offensively (although Derron Parquet acquitted himself well in Number 20's absence), but with Joe Lee Dunn's defense hitting on all cylinders, South Florida and whomever the Tigers go bowling with will have their hands full. After five victories in a row, this team really does seem to have a rendezvous with destiny. And now that they're mastering the concept of winning ugly, I wouldn't bet against them.