One of the inherent charms of college football is its imperfection.
It's inevitable that a game played by a couple dozen 18- to 23-year-olds who only practice for 20 hours a week* while also attending a university as full time students* are going to make a lot of errors. Referees are going to do inexplicable things.
*I know, I know ... just remember that they still don't spend as many hours on football as their professional counterparts.
It's what makes this possible:
The NFL has games that end late at night, but only the Pac-12 has its own Twitter hashtag that inevitably trends every dang Saturday night for the crazy crap that happens after the sun goes down. (No, I'm not going to post a video of the Cougars' contribution to that lore in 2014. You're welcome.)
There's a certain amount of a lack of execution that we tolerate, mostly because we love our school, but also because deep down, there's a little part of us that actually enjoys the variance caused by the randomness of a bunch of not-quite-professional athletes playing a game.
One thing that's harder to wrap our brains around, though, is inconsistency of passion. It seems as if that is something that should be in ready supply for young men of this age, and the Cougars were oozing it on Saturday in a dramatic win against Rutgers ... one week after seemingly having none of it in a stunningly inept loss to Portland State.
The Cougars have cycled between the two seemingly at random for much of the last decade. It's frankly been the most baffling issue facing Cougar football over that time. Like ... I don't even get how it could be humanly possible to not be fired up to pummel Portland State. But it happened, as it's happened so many times over the last two coaching administrations ... only to be followed up this week by one of the more passionate performances I've seen in some time.
The team displayed huge guts to pull out that victory on Saturday, and while I'm elated that the Cougars were the "most excited to play," I can't say that what happened in the game did much to convince me that this team has indeed changed the arc of its season as set by the opening loss.
Craig covered most of what I was going to say in terms of analysis in his piece, so you can go read what he wrote if you haven't already, but the tl;dr version is that yes, there was growth, but we all knew the team was better than what it showed against the Vikings. However, a lot of the issues that were there last week were still there this week, it's just that they were overcome by a bit better offense and supplemented by bunch of Rutgers screwups that seemingly all inflicted maximum pain on the Scarlet Knights. The defense still was getting gashed, and the special teams still were horrendous (minus Erik Powell's awesomeness, of course).
How different might the game have ended if those fumbles had not found their way into WSU hands? Or if the penalties that nullified TDs had not been called? I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth, and I'm not trying to be a downer; if you're still fired up about the game, go crazy. I had a lot of fun watching it and am happy for the boys that they got to pay Rutgers back for last season.
I'm just trying to be real about the predictive value of what happened on that field. Maybe Saturday really was the first day of the rest of these Cougars' lives and they've turned a corner toward being the most excited to play and the best at doing their jobs -- traveling across the country and holding up the way they did is no small feat and should be recognized as such -- but with as much inconsistency as we've seen on that front, it's going to take a little more than one game to convince me. Heck, even last year's team figured out a way to gut out a come-from-behind win on the road at Utah and take Oregon to the wire. They also had a three-game spiral after the Cal loss and failed to show up in the Apple Cup. The Apple Cup.
So you'll have to forgive me if I'm not even "cautiously optimistic" at this point. That's what Cougar football has done to me. Dropping 50 on Wyoming while seeing an even cleaner version of the team would be a good way to start winning me back over.
What We Liked
Much has been made of how much we should love or not love what Luke Falk did on Saturday*, but I think we all can agree that a huge reason he was able to do what he did is because the offensive line absolutely balled out.
*My personal take: While the results were great on Saturday and I take nothing away from his incredibly awesome final drive, I believe he simply must get faster with his decisions and must anticipate windows better if he's going to succeed against better opponents. But we'll leave that for another day.
Rutgers rated as one of the better pass rushing teams in the country last year. Granted, the Scarlet Knights were missing Darius Hamilton, but still -- Falk had pretty much all day to throw whenever we wanted (needed?) it. Falk dropped back 72 times, and Rutgers registered a grand total of one sack. ONE. And the running backs picked up 51 yards on 10 carries.
We all hoped the Cougars had finally put together a truly legitimate offensive line for the first time since Bill Doba roamed the sidelines. Signs are good so far!
Honorable Mention: The pass rush looked pretty effective! That's another thing we all hoped was for real, and when the Cougs were able to put Rutgers into obvious passing downs, the light package that included guys such as Kache Palacio, Ivan McLennan, Hercules Mata'afa and Darryl Paulo was disruptive. They only picked up one sack, but they were the impetus behind Chris Laviano's two turnovers (which easily could have been three turnovers had a seemingly sure interception in the end zone been corralled).
What Needs To Improve
Take one guess.
ESPN Announcer Guy: "Touchdown Rutgers! Can you believe that?"
Every Cougar fan: "YES. YES WE F****NG CAN."
If you have even a passing understanding of punt coverage, you can see the complete and total breakdown of lane integrity on the part of the Cougars on this return as all the guys to Grant's right basically overrun him after the missed tackle. I'd say it's unbelievable that guys are still making these kinds of elementary mistakes, but this is Cougar football -- nothing's unbelievable.
I mean, how many teams have a punt returner who fumbles a punt one week, then fields a punt in the end zone that he brings out of the end zone the next?
Fix it. All of it. Please. Pretty please.
Dishonorable Mention: The run defense. I'll get after the nose tackles in a second, but the complete and total inability to set an edge by the Rush linebacker and defensive end was inexcusable.
Defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao had himself a day. He had four tackles, including half a tackle for loss, and was generally doing one heck of a Xavier Cooper impression. I have yet to go back and re-watch the game, but my sense was that as Rutgers was running all over the defense in the second half, they were running away from Vaeao. Through two games, the senior has nine tackles (he had 14 all last season) and is looking like a versatile, every down player who might just force NFL scouts to sit up and take notice.
And a special shoutout to Erik Powell. I guess now is as good a time as any to say that I was a little confused as to how he lost his kicking job last season; he showed plenty of leg and it's not like he was shanking kicks all over the place (unlike the guy who replaced him). I'm ecstatic to see that we might once again have a reliable kicker. This win doesn't happen without his three field goals. Kudos to him.
Honorable mention: Gerard Wicks, Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, Luke Falk, Marcellus Pippins (INTERCEPTION YOU GUYS!!)
Which Players Underwhelmed
Let's go with two: Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale. Again, I'm going to have to re-watch the game to say for sure, but as Rutgers was marching up and down the field, I tried to keep an eye on the defensive line, and it seemed time and time again the nose tackle -- didn't matter who -- was being moved off his spot and pushed two to three yards downfield.
This has a chain reaction on the defense; linebackers start having linemen in their faces and aren't able to fill their gaps properly. Remember all that talk about "guys trying to do too much" after Portland State? That usually happens to linebackers when their linemen don't keep them clean and they feel like they have to start overcompensating for what's happening in front of them. They start overrunning gaps and not only are there cutback lanes galore, they're not in a good, square position to make a tackle.
We knew the Cougars would miss Cooper and Toni Pole. While Vaeao has stepped up, his teammates on the interior of the line have yet to meet the challenge. Let's hope it's just a matter of correcting some technique.
Wyoming comes to Pullman for a game that kicks off at 5:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks. The Cowboys are really bad, having lost to FCS North Dakota 24-13 in week one before getting boatraced by Eastern Michigan 48-29. Both games were at home.
In what has to be a complete and total oddity, the Cougars will face their third consecutive run-first team -- so far, WSU opponents have run the ball 85 times and thrown it 41, and the Cowboys have run the ball 77 times and thrown it 56. There should be plenty of opportunities to work on all the aforementioned issues with the run defense. The Cowboys haven't been horrible on a per-play basis, but some dreadful red zone execution -- which includes 0-for-2 on field goals -- has stymied their production.
Wyoming's opponents have run the ball a ton -- nearly 2-to-1 rushes to passes -- but when they've thrown the ball, they've had a lot of success. After playing an FCS team and an FBS midmajor also-ran, the Cowboys are 106th in total defense. That's not good.
This is a team WSU should beat handily. But we all know that means little.