After Memphis State lost to Florida State, 35-3, last Nov. 17, the players began pointing toward the opening game of the 1991 season.
Several of them confirmed that they concentrated throughout the winter and the hot summer months on only one objective--to beat USC.
The goal was achieved in a stunning fashion at the Coliseum, where the Tigers upset the Trojans, 24-10, Monday before a mostly subdued crowd of 55,637.
There was a small contingent of Memphis State fans gathered near the west end zone, and they were whooping it up, understandably.
Memphis State’s players went to the dressing room when the game ended but quickly returned to the field for a team picture.
This was a moment they didn’t want to forget, and the picture will remind them of their memorable afternoon in Los Angeles.
Even though the Tigers were heavy underdogs, they seemingly weren’t awed.
And the players realized that they could have had a psychological advantage because the Trojans might have been looking ahead to more prestigious opponents.
“All they probably knew about us is that we play basketball,” said wide receiver Russell Jones, alluding to the sport in which Memphis State is more renowned.
Linebacker Rod Brown, who made one of the key plays of the game, was more blunt.
“They considered us a Division II team,” he said. “They had no respect for us.”
After Memphis State went ahead, 17-10, early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers kicked off to the Trojans.
The ball bounced away from USC’s Johnnie Morton, toward the pursuing Memphis State players.
A kickoff is a free ball and Brown was the first to reach it, retaining possession at the Trojans’ 18-yard line. The Tigers scored three plays later.
It was a most gratifying victory for Memphis State Coach Chuck Stobart, USC’s former offensive coordinator. He had a long association with USC Coach Larry Smith, back to the days when they were assistants under Bo Schembechler at Miami of Ohio and Michigan.
He took over a faltering Memphis State program in 1989. The Tigers were 2-9 in his first season and 4-6-1 last year.
“I told our players that the biggest thing is that they believed in themselves,” said the 56-year-old Stobart. “Nobody else gave us much of a chance to win this game. Now, one of the great things about this is that people all over the country will be saying, ‘Who is Memphis State?’ ”
It was probably the most shocking opening-game defeat for USC since it lost to Missouri, 46-25, when John Robinson made his debut as head coach.
The Trojans recovered from that setback, winning the remainder of their games, including the game against Michigan.
“All winter, spring and summer we prepared for this game,” Stobart said. “I told the players what to expect at the Coliseum. We even played USC’s fight song in practice so they’d get used to it.
“We knew there would be a possibility that USC would overlook us. That was something we were banking on. But our preparation was probably the difference in the game. You never know what to expect in a first game.
“I’m a Tiger now and I’m extremely proud of our players. But I’m also a Trojan and always will be. I’m rooting for them to go to the Rose Bowl.”
Jones said that the Tigers weren’t awed by the Trojans, the tradition, the horse, the Coliseum, or anything else.
“It was not USC hurting us in the first half (the Trojans led, 10-3, at halftime),” Jones said. “We were just hurting ourselves.”
The Tigers outscored USC, 21-0, in the second half, seemingly baffling the Trojans with a Power I formation, three players stacked in the backfield.
Jones scored on a 40-yard pass play from quarterback Keith Benton in the third quarter to tie the score, 10-10.
“It was just a simple post pattern,” he said.
Benton said USC’s free safety, Mike Salmon, committed to a run, opening up the post.
Then, to prove that their touchdown wasn’t a fluke, Memphis State drove 97 yards to score early in the fourth quarter.
“We are a well-conditioned team,” said Memphis State defensive tackle Larry Cox, indicating that the Tigers wore down the Trojans in the second half.
Memphis State’s players seemed to take the victory in stride, shouting “Ole Miss” as they came into the dressing room.
Mississippi is the next opponent for the Tigers, who weren’t fazed by Trojan tradition.
“We didn’t get caught up in all that racket,” Benton said.