Offense owns the night
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The great thing about football in America is that you never know when all hell is going to break loose.
When two teams are going to detonate for 105 points, 1,202 yards of offense and three punts in 3 hours and 52 manic minutes.
When you'll channel surf across a game that you'll be talking about the next morning to anyone who will listen.
Thursday night was that night. The Liberty Bowl was that place. Memphis and Louisville were those teams.
The score: Cardinals 56, Tigers 49. In regulation. Honest.
"It was like a video game on the easiest level," said Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors, "with no defense. It was a track meet."
First one to 50 wins.
"It was two heavyweights out there, I'll tell you that," said Memphis coach Tommy West.
Yeah. Mike Tyson on offense. Peter McNeeley on defense.
LeFors (321 yards and three touchdowns) and Memphis' Danny Wimprine (361 yards and four TDs) threw brilliantly. Louisville's Eric Shelton (136 yards and four touchdowns) and Memphis' DeAngelo Williams (200 yards and two TDs) ran explosively. Louisville's J.R. Russell (146 receiving yards and two TDs) and Memphis' Tavares Gideon (115 yards and two TDs) made spectacular catches.
And both defenses were helpless. Not enough pass rush, sloppy tackling and some horrific coverage aided and abetted the offensive orgy.
(Well, most of the crowd. At the end, frustrated by the Tigers' serial inability to stop an old and bitter rival, a few whiskey bottles came hurtling out of the stands and landed in one end zone.)
For Louisville, this was pretty much business as usual. The Cardinals came into the game leading the nation in total offense at 505 yards per outing and averaging a fat 42 points per game -- and now those numbers are even larger.
"We've got 150 percent confidence now," Russell said. "We needed 56 to win, so that's what we got."
Said Memphis coach Tommy West: "I'm afraid we got whipped tonight. I'm afraid their offense whipped our defense. It looked like we were in gaps -- we just got blocked."
Memphis' outburst was somewhat less expected, after being held to 10 points last time out, in a befuddling rout at Cincinnati. But this is not a team without weapons, and they all went off Thursday night against a Louisville defense that had been highly ranked, but had shown serious leaks against Miami.
"I think we probably left everything we had out there," West said.
It didn't take long for the scoring to start. A Memphis field goal here, a Louisville touchdown there, a Memphis answer, a Louisville answer, a Memphis answer -- suddenly it's 17-14 in the first quarter.
But that was just a warm-up for a second quarter that saw 37 points scored -- 21 by the Cardinals, 16 by the Tigers. At halftime it was Louisville 35, Memphis 33, and it looked like it would be first one to 70.
The third quarter was a veritable defensive slugfest -- just a touchdown for each side. In the fourth, Louisville's running game, utilizing three big backs behind a big line, began to pound on Memphis. The Cardinals went ahead 48-40 -- then surrendered nine points to lose the lead, the last three after Louisville's second fumbled handoff of the game.
But that simply set the stage for the climactic drive -- a 14-play, 80-yard gut check. Three times Louisville converted third downs to keep moving, twice on LeFors' passes and once on a Shelton run that gave the Cards first-and-goal from the Memphis 1 in the final minute.
The Memphis fans pleaded for a stop, in vain. A Joe Lee Dunn defense that had shut down Louisville last year in a 37-7 Tigers triumph was being routed.
"Joe Lee!" screamed a fan. "What kind of defense is that?!? That's horrible!"
The next play was mere formality: Shelton shoved his way into the end zone for the winning touchdown with 37 seconds left.
Of course, 37 seconds in this game could be an eternity. So it was not without irony that the final Memphis gasp ended on a defensive play -- an interception by linebacker Abe Brown. At last, the madness had been stopped.
"It was fun," Russell said. "Lots of fun. That is what you come to college for."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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