Even in a season-opening loss similar to last year, there are legitimate reasons for hope

An inconsistent offensive performance? Big plays given up by abysmal special teams? A defense overmatched by a superior athlete at wideout?

A 39-13 loss?

Haven't we been here before?

Yesterday's result should feel like a whole heck of a lot of deja vu -- after all, Oklahoma State did virtually the same thing to us in last year's opener, right down to the kickoff return for a touchdown after closing the gap to 12 points -- and we all know how the rest of the season turned out. For goodness sake, last season's opener led me to write this before week two, so we all know that appearances can be deceiving.

But, for some reason, it doesn't feel the same. Some might chalk it up to simple hope -- hope that this year can't possibly turn out as badly as last year. We were a pretty beaten down bunch by the end of the season, and anything that didn't involve getting shut out and losing by seven touchdowns was bound to make us feel like we are heading in the right direction.

I think it's more than that, though.

Truly, we actually look like we resemble a Pac-10 team once again, and I don't just mean in terms of the non-blowout result. I'm talking about those weight gains everyone talked so much about, combined with an actual appearance of an understanding of how to play the game of football. Our players are actually starting to look like Pac-10 players, with muscles and everything!

And while strength doesn't always make a player better, one needs to look no further than what we were able to do against Stanford's running attack for evidence that things are, in fact, different.

I know some would argue that it's not right to just throw out parts of the game willy-nilly to get the statistical results you want because, after all, every yard and every point counts in the end. But for the purpose of evaluating a team that's trying to make strides, it can be beneficial to evaluate segments of the game.

Case in point: If you remove the opening drive and the 39-yard touchdown on fourth-and-three, Toby Gerhart gained 56 yards on 17 carries. Think about what that means: For a span of 51 minutes of game time, Gerhart averaged 3.3 yards per carry. That would have never happened last year, and it was because our defensive line held its own at the point of attack while the linebackers did a superb job of wrapping up. You can chalk that up in large part to the improved strength of the team.

The same thing can be said for the offensive side of the ball. That first drive was a thing of beauty, despite not being able to finish it by putting the ball into the end zone. There was no trickery, no deception, no creative game calling that gave the Cougs one of those weird, first-drive advantages that teams so often enjoy. No -- we just came out and hit the Cardinal in the mouth, running it down their throats.

And despite the fact that it sure seemed like the offense was in and out of rhythm, the bottom line is that the offense was vastly better than it was in last year's opener, putting up 5.5 yards per play, compared to just 3.3 yards per play against Oklahoma State. In fact, only once last year did the Cougs exceed 5.5 yards per play -- against Portland State. The next closest was 5.0 against UW, and they only exceeded 4.0 two other times.

Yes, there was one trick play, which resulted in the biggest gain of the day. And there were other signs that this offense still isn't quite ready for primetime (no matter who is quarterbacking), which we'll get into later this week. But, overall, this team showed it's not completely physically overmatched on offense, as it was for the vast majority of last season.

Oh, and did I mention the Cougs committed zero turnovers?

To be sure, there are still concerns -- chief among them the performance of our special teams, which, as Craig said to me in a text yesterday, is where our lack of depth truly shows. Stanford also took advantage of our overpursuit defensively by calling a couple of counters to Jeremy Stewart, one of which resulted in long touchdown run. But as Paul Wulff put it yesterday, most of yesterday's blunders were correctable mistakes. The same could not be said last year. And since this looks like a team that actually is buying into the schemes and trusts the coaching staff, I have no doubt that the mistakes will get corrected.

So if you're feeling hopeful today, go ahead and indulge. With winnable games against Hawaii and SMU on deck, there's reason to believe this team didn't just flash a mirage at us like it did last year.

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