Having just been cut off from the last part of the game, I feel the need to get on here and get going with something that I am entirely ripping off from Milehighreport.com, another superb sbnation blog for Denver Broncos fans. While I do not have a replay to watch or a dvr recording to go over I want to go over the game while it is still fresh in my mind.
First off, if anyone here is at all familiar with ST and NO you know that I'm going to try to do this as a weekly feature purely as a fan to spur discussion amongst the Cougar faithful. This game being the debacle that it was, I figure now is as good a time as any to get the conversation started, so we can get ready to move on towards Montana State next week in the friendly confines of Martin Stadium. So here goes folks, more after the jump...
So yeah, this one didn't go quite as well as many of us had hoped it would. As much as it pains me to state the obvious, our Cougs may not be as far along as we had thought they would be this year. However, that is not to say that there wasn't any progress made this off-season or that there is reason to start calling for the coaching staff to be shown the door. Afloat in the sea of questionable play and intensity some good stuff floated to the surface and we may well have seen some flashes of where this team is headed, and while I don't want to be mistaken as a singsong pollyanna with his fingers in his ears, I will focus more on where progress was made more than where we were lacking.
The Not So Good
That said, lets get the bad out of the way first, it's like tearing off a bandaid, do it quick and move on. To put it simply the Cougs were outclassed. In every phase of the game, except maybe special teams, it was obvious and unmistakable. Physically the Cowboys were more mature, larger, faster, stronger, better. Kendell Hunter was an absolute beast, and from what I could tell he was on fire because every hand laid on him was immediately taken away just as quickly from having been burned. The guy wasn't just having a good night, he was having an all-world night, and had Gundy not pulled him he'd have easily eclipsed what Barry Sanders achieved in his single game rushing record. This of course is where the first glaring inadequacy reared its ugly head, the D-line did not impress at all. They were getting push for awhile, and they even had a couple of nice near-sacks early on, but overall they failed to generate pressure and create opportunities for the secondary or the linebackers to generate turnovers or outside pressure.
Perhaps most distressing, and most telling, the Cougs only got one sack against what had largely been talked about being an inexperienced line in the midst of rebuilding. First, the push was there, but the athleticism wasn't. Rankin and Wolfgramm both seemed to be getting into the backfield and moving the line of scrimmage, but Long and Kooyman were ghosts out there. Long is still young and still learning and we've seen flashes from him before, but for Kooyman to have such a quiet night is a concern as he should be the guy out there pressing these guys forward as a leader. I didn't see any of that tonight and that was a disappointment. They were all being handled, despite generating leverage. Thankfully these are things that can be worked on, and the younger guys will learn and move forward, but Kooyman needs to step it up. This year is his las,t no matter what, and to see him play like he did, so dispassionately, was not okay. As this team moves forward and tries to improve, the coaches need to single out the veterans like Kooyman, and make sure they are playing with the reckless abandon necessary to win. This points to a larger issue throughout the team, where was the reckless abandon? Usually when dealing with a young team you have a number of things that can be said about them. Usually chief among these is that with the good of having them go out there with a ton of energy and a willingness to just play there is the bad of making some costly mistakes. In this game, there wasn't so much an explosion of energy and recklessness that goes with it, but more a reserved attitude that maybe reigned our Cougs in and kept them from playing as hard and as fast as they could.
Once again, there are some issues with young teams and the Cougs are not the first to succumb to this. The fact of the matter is that the majority of our secondary and even some of our younger veterans were out there playing in their first game or one that still numbered in the single digits of their careers. What we saw tonight were a bunch of young guys trying not to make a mistake. They weren't out there freelancing and having fun, but were instead doing all they could not to screw up because they might end up in their coach's doghouse. Just watching the coverages, especially when the Cougs would drop into a zone D, no one out there had any intention of getting out in space and trying to make a play, instead moving immediately to where their playbook dictated they be. Seeing good solid execution is good, but seeing it so rigidly followed is a less than good thing. The fact is that these guys have speed and have talent. None of OK State's guys just flat out smoked our guys like in years past. Coverage was there, but the willingness to try something and go out on a limb wasn't and it may have cost us. Moving forward if our boys don't turn loose a bit and try to start making some plays there won't be any turnovers, much less the 3 a game that the coaching staff has said they are aiming for. Being a football layman I have to believe that the coaching staff likely already caught it, or will when they watch film, and will be the first to try and get these boys to turn loose out on the field and have some more fun just playing the game instead of constantly worrying about being perfect.
This leads me to the middle ground of where this team is at. There is obvious progress, but with that progress has come a new set of problems, none of them completely unexpected by the coaches, but many of them unexpected by us, the fans. This team is young, they are going to make mistakes, and they are going to show us flashes of greatness too. The initial resilience on the offensive side of the ball was refreshing, down 17-0 last year this team would have rolled over, died, and been left as roadkill by the half. Instead they fought back, and unfortunately OK State decided it was time to quit messing around and gave Hunter the ball. Of course, by the half the Cougs were down big again, but we had seen some fight, and had Hunter not teed off like he had we likely could have seen some more fight out of the team before succumbing in the second half. The other major thing that put a dent in the Cougs armor to star was that first snap of the game, the only way it could have gone worse was if it went over Tuel's head and ended up in the end zone for the Pokes to recover. That was a simple mistake and there was some good feelings, at least on my end, when they didn't come back out and immediately turn it over again or fall apart. Admittedly they didn't exactly light the world on fire in their subsequent drives but they didn't fall apart completely either.
So the good stuff, what was there to look at and be happy about, or dare I say proud of. Honestly, I think there was quite a bit. This team has cleaned its act up quite a bit from the last couple of years, and in a number of ways that seemingly no one bothered to take notice of on TV or in the numerous game threads out there.
4 penalties for 40 yards, if you can find me another game going back to the days of Mike Price that was that well executed with that few penalties handed out I'll attempt to eat my hat. This team played flawed, but disciplined football. Like I said earlier our boys were worried a bit too much about trying to be in perfect textbook position once the ball was snapped, but during the pre-snap shuffle there's nothing wrong with it. No illegal shifts, personal fouls- aside from the phantom facemask, just a couple of holds and some other things that are to be expected in the course of a game. These guys played well, and didn't let things get chippy on their side despite OK state getting that way in the third quarter.
One turnover and one blocked punt, otherwise no big slip ups that cost us the game, they certainly didn't help, but compared to the amount of boneheaded stuff we have routinely witnessed per game in the last two seasons we really should be taking notice here. They didn't get too over eager and start forcing things on D that coughed up big plays, and they definitely didn't just hand the ball to OK State by failing to execute on offense either. Punts are what they are, and they're a necessary part of the game, but at least there you can try to dictate field position as opposed to just coughing it up trying to do something that clearly isn't a good idea.
SPECIAL TEAMS were largely special. The coverage was pretty damn good throughout the game, and aside from allowing OK state to block the late punt, there was none of the major coverage breakdowns that we have become accustomed to through our last couple of years watching this team. Ungerer has brought this unit back from the dead, as has the new depth that we have been able to run out there. This isn't just a bunch of gassed starters going out there trying to keep up anymore, it's guys that are happy to be on the field and doing their best to hammer someone and generate some opportunities for our offense. They also tried to generate some of their own offense and opposed to how fakes seemingly always work at WSU it looks like we'll have some potential to fool some teams and maybe steal some points or first downs. Also, let it be said that Nico Grasu's kick was probably the best looking kick we've seen this side of Dunning in years. That 56 yarder was a beauty and it would've been good from 60-65 the way he hit it. This year is going to be a better year in the third phase of the game and we should all be applauding the efforts of these guys and the coaching staff for recognizing a major problem and squaring it away so quickly.
The Overall Verdict
This team has work to do. That's the long and the short of it. With this first game out of the way these guys have to get back up and get to work. With Montana State coming up and coming off of a big win themselves there needs to be a short memory as a team. If they can do that, and get working towards getting a win against a team they should beat then we are likely to see a much improved team in Martin next weekend. The biggest keys, and hopefully Wulff will back me up on the coaches show, are getting the D to play fast and loose. That's not to say an less disciplined, but just to say that they need to have fun and quit worrying about trying to get everything right. Most of them got thrown in the fire tonight and if they jumped out of it they landed in the frying pan anyway. I can't imagine the nerves of these players going into this game, especially for the first-timers, as they move on and learn from their mistakes they will only get better.
The offense just plain needs to get a better performance from the line. The guys they are playing this next week should give them the opportunity to work out some of the obvious blocking issues they were having and allow them to work as a more cohesive unit. They call these tune up games for a reason and the simple fact is that our Offense needs the biggest tune up of the three main units. We saw that Marquess Wilson can play, that Tuel can make the throws, (his ball to Wilson to beat the Cover 2 was perfect), and we know that the running game is improved if only because there was actual forward progress made more times than not when the ball was handed off. These guys will have to improve the most if this team wants to win, but they can do it and they can steal a game or two as they continue to work together.
Special teams needs to just keep it up and maybe generate some turn overs when there's opportunity. We're already going to have the first ever Heisman winner for punting, so the rest of the boys just need to keep in their lanes and keep making good solid contact like they are. I honestly couldn't believe the improvement in this part of the game and I can't wait to see if the Cougs can't rank well nationally and maybe pull the O and D up because of winning the field position battle and scoring from distance.
It's not time to freak out yet people. This is the first game, and for many on the team, a wake up call. There are some serious issues to be dealt with. Both lines need to shore up their issues and generate or suppress pressure to create opportunities for their respective units. The D needs to loosen up and the O just plain needs to keep their heads up and keep making the plays we saw them make when they decided to fight back. This won't be another lost year if they do and we might just be singing the praises of our team and our coaching staff if they can make more progress in shoring these things up each week. This was an aberration, it won't be the norm, freak out if we are still seeing this after USC, but for now just hold your head up, wear your Crimson and get to Martin. Things will get better and we'll all be smiling when they do. Feel free to comment below, critique as necessary and I'll be next week after we get win #1 on the year. GO COUGS!!!