Heading into the year, it seemed like the general consensus was that the Cougs were so far behind everyone else in the Pac-10 that we'd all be satisfied with substantial, tangible improvement, even if it didn't necessarily result in more wins this season.
And yet, there we all were on Saturday, hanging on every play. We soared with the exhilaration of a fourth quarter lead ... then came crashing down when it was taken away and the field position subsequently squandered by a futile goal line offense and completely inept run defense.
From my location -- at a retreat, away from the television, monitoring it on my phone -- I couldn't have been happier. I was with a bunch of Cougs, and we were actually excited about what was developing. A close game? In the fourth quarter? On the road, against a team that knocked off a top 10 team away from home the week before?
I could care less that the game was seemingly squandered. We were in it. Against a legitimate opponent. And not because of something fluky, such as an insane number of turnovers or 99-yard touchdown passes. We were in it because our offense was putting some serious pressure on a defense that had yielded just 25 points to Texas and Houston the two previous weeks combined.
Do I wish they would have figured out a way to close the deal? More than anything, for myriad reasons, but mostly because it would be nice to just talk about a win with everyone for once.
But I'm not going to let the fact that they didn't close the deal sour what was a surprisingly effective performance. Yet, that's exactly what it seems like many of you have done.
I sometimes hesitate to play the "if I had told you before the year" game, because everything's contextual. But if I had told you before the year that the Cougs would have beaten Montana State (to get the one win everyone thought they should get) and then three weeks later had a shot at a fourth-quarter lead on the road against someone in the Pac-10, I think we'd all agree that represented not just progress, but substantial progress from the end of last season.
A year ago at this time, Jeff Tuel couldn't even make it out of his first start healthy because of a sieve of an offensive line. The team couldn't score more than 20 offensive points in any game -- and were at 14 or less in every game but three. Most teams were pulling their starters at halftime, things were so out of hand.
And yet, it seems so many people are thoroughly dissatisfied with Saturday's result. I understood it when people were pissed after Oklahoma State. I understood when people were pissed after Montana State -- in fact, I was right there with you on that one. But I just don't understand how so many people aren't encouraged by what we saw against SMU (in the game late), USC (in the game at halftime against a top 25 team) and UCLA (in the game late against a conference opponent).
Isn't that what we all said we wanted to see?
I'm really at a loss to explain this. I guess it's just human nature to be greedy; the win was there for the taking, we wanted them to take it, we needed them to take it ... and when they didn't, we felt let down.
Maybe there are other factors at play, too. Maybe I'm just noticing the 35 percent of fans who had already given up on Wulff before this game ever kicked off -- fans who are going to see what they want to see. Maybe its the fact that there are three consecutive top 20 teams on the horizon, starting with the team I think might be the second-best team in the country. Maybe it's just the fact that the defense still appears light years away. Maybe people are simply tired of talking about "improvement" and just want to talk about a win for once.
Maybe it's something else. I don't know.
But the bottom line is that this team is dramatically improved. The offense looks like a legitimate Pac-10 unit. The special teams have been vastly better. And while the defense is depressingly awful, just remember how bad the offense looked a year ago and what the infusion of a bit of young talent around the core that was already there has done for that group in less than half a season. The same could be done for the defense in another year.
I thought this was all what we wanted to see. Why isn't it enough?