Sorry it's been a couple of days since I've posted, but I've got a legit reason.
I needed to cool down, take a step back ... and breathe.
Like a lot of you, I was incredibly frustrated by Saturday's performance. I'm getting to the point where I'm having a hard time putting my emotions aside when analyzing this team, because I'm so sick and tired of losing -- and losing badly.
I think the tipping point for me was getting up at 6 a.m. to drive to Pullman with my brother for the Oregon game, getting all fired up for homecoming, only to watch this team crap all over itself in the first five minutes of the game AGAIN, and more or less look like a team that doesn't even belong in the FBS, let alone the Pac-10. We cut out late in the third quarter to head out to My Office because we had to see what real football looked like.
Last week just put me over the top. Yeah, the rush defense was better, but it felt like the secondary couldn't make a stop when it needed to -- giving up 50 percent conversions on third down -- and that the offense was still extremely mistake prone and inexcusably ineffective against a team that had allowed a lot of points this year to everyone.
How hard of a time was I having looking at this thing objectively? Consider the following e-mail I sent to Grady on Sunday as we were discussing the site:
(I)t's just hard to get fired up to write about this team. I mean, how many different ways can you say they stink? Yes, the run defense was a positive, but the pass defense was absolutely abysmal, giving up 7.5 yards/attempt to an offense that had not exceeded 6.0 all season -- and posted just a 2.6 (!) the week before against Fresno State. And don't even get me started on the offense. I lay that one at the feet of the coaching staff.
Then, I had to send this e-mail about seven minutes later:
Actually, I misspoke. We allowed 6.1 yards per attempt, and UCLA had 7.5 the week before against Fresno State. I looked at the table wrong. Maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought. But still, it was frustrating as crap to watch the run defense make a stop, only to watch our defensive backs be completely unable to even be in the vicinity of a UCLA receiver.
Here I was, nearly 24 hours later, totally out of sorts. No way was I going to let some silly facts get in the way of how I was feeling. I thought the team looked terrible, so by golly, they were terrible -- facts be damned.
So I took a short break.
But 72 hours and a fresh examination of the game later, I think I'm ready to get back on this horse. So here goes ...
Paul Wulff has been preaching all year long that they're just trying to get better every week. When the losses start mounting the way they have for these Cougars, sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. But you have to look for the little victories, and this team is, indeed, getting better. I've got the facts to prove it.
Let's start with the defense. You might remember that I wrote after the OSU game that the defense was one of the pleasant surprises of that season opener. Well, there was nothing pleasant about the defense for the next month, as it gave up 7.9, 9.0 and 7.0 yards per play to Cal, Baylor(!) and Oregon. For some perspective on just how bad that is, each year the median yards per play given up by defenses is generally around 5.3. So we were really, really bad.
Of course, only Portland State was exempt from our futility, as the Vikings posted just 4.1 yards per play.
Well, on Saturday, we gave up just 4.4 yards per play to the Bruins. That's certainly much better than anything we'd put up against an FBS opponent all year, and even a better figure than all but three performances in 2007, and all but two performances.
Now, yards per play isn't exactly the panacea of defensive stats, given that not all yards gained are equal and other factors (such as turnovers and red zone stoutness) can influence points scored -- if only we had DVOA for college football. But it can hardly be argued that lowering your yards per play average against FBS opponents from 7.4 to 6.7 with just one performance represents a pretty significant improvement in overall defensive play.
No, the opponent was not an upper-tier Pac-10 team, but neither was Baylor -- and look at how that turned out. And, yes, this team was on the field for 74 plays because it gave up 9-of-18 third down conversions to a UCLA team that hadn't exceeded 25 percent in the previous three games, but through it all, the defense only gave up 28 points.
This game represents something to get at least a little excited about. A team that rushed for 234 yards the previous week in 38 carries against Fresno State, rushed for only 100 on 37 carries -- and hardly dominated -- against us. I laid the blame at the feet of the tackles earlier in the week, and I've got to give the credit to them in the wake of that performance: Matt Eichelberger and A'i Ahmu played like they read my post earlier in the week, and actually looked like Pac-10 players at the point of attack. For the first time they didn't look overwhelmed, which is huge.
Remember, little victories.
Now think about the special teams. Remember what a disaster they were against Oklahoma State? They've been anything but since. Chris Ivory has become a potent return man -- the cynic might say he's had lots of practice, but whatever -- and even Chantz Staden did an admirable job in Ivory's absence. (Save for his seeming unquenchable thirst to stutter his feet and run backwards on punt returns. But since we're focusing on the little victories, I'll go ahead and leave that one alone.)
The kicking game has been very good. Most of us had no idea what to expect from Nico Grasu, and he's actually been quite good, while Reid Forrest has turned into a pretty darn good punter. (Yeah, yeah -- lots of practice. Whatever.) As maddening as that rugby kick was last year, it's actually a pretty formidable weapon right now. Forrest has proved he can boom a conventional punt, but that rugby punt comes in handy when the other team has an exceptionally explosive returner, a la Miles Austin on Saturday. Methinks it might come in handy this week to keep the ball away from Sammie Stroughter, easily one of the most dangerous return men in the conference.
Special teams coach Steve Broussard deserves a ton of credit for how this unit has come together.
As for the offense ... well, you have to look a little bit harder for those little victories.
First of all, just one turnover -- an interception -- and no fumbles recoveries for UCLA. Yes, we still put the ball on the ground three times, but hey, like I said ... little victories.
Additionally, Lobbestael is getting better. Even with posting sub-100 ratings the past two weeks, he still represents a marked improvement over both Gary Rogers and Kevin Lopina and needs continued time to develop. Although he looked extremely nervous at the outset of the game, then just plain flustered most of the rest of the way, he frankly didn't get a lot of help. The official stats don't count drops, but I can think of at least four catchable balls that weren't caught. And the coaching staff didn't do him any favors early, either, by more or less abandoning the run early. Clearly, neither he nor the offensive line were up to that sort of task.
Lastly, the running game is showing some signs of life. Dwight Tardy is one of my unsung heroes this season, as he just continues to run hard whenever his number is called. (I wish his number was called more often, but we'll save that for some other time.)
The rushing attack broke off some big chunks at times, which could be a function of another little victory: The offensive line is finally getting some stability. For the first time all year, the same five guys started two consecutive games, and it appears they'll start a third consecutive game. Not that chemistry is everything, but for a unit that has been in an unbelievable amount of upheaval since training camp, this has to bode well.
And, of course, Brandon Gibson is still Brandon Gibson. So we've got that going for us. Which is nice.
And that's the reason I really think this offense is on the verge of something big. Unlike the defense, there is not a void of talent on that side of the ball. With a new offensive scheme exacerbated by injuries, there just has been no consistency. That's starting to come together.
As the playbook expands and Wulff and Sturdy get a better idea of how to beat Pac-10 opponents -- psst! Run the ball! -- this offense is going to take a quantum leap forward in the very near future. It probably won't happen on the road this weekend in Corvallis, or at home against USC the following week, but with two weeks to prepare for Stanford ... I won't be shocked if we really do something special against the Cardinal, injuries between now and then notwithstanding.
So there you have it. In a season in which it's been real difficult to smile, there are positive things happening. Stick with this team -- I think it's going to pay off at some point, and not just next season. I think this team has a win in it this year. Where, I'm not sure, but some things are really starting to come together a little bit.