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September 18, 2007

(New Mexico 29, at UA 27)

These are the times that make philosophers out of all of us.

How? Why? Why us?

We care. We really do. We watch all the games from around the country. We travel great distances to see games in person. All forÖthat.

I woke up Saturday morning in Santa Clarita, California, because my wife was a bridesmaid in her friendís wedding. You think that stopped me from going to the game? I risked my marriage by leaving my wife at the reception and my five-month-old baby with the in-laws. I risked my sanity by weaving through bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405 freeway. I risked my sanitary-ity by changing clothes in an airport bathroom stall. I sprinted from my car on 9th Street and got to my seat midway through the first quarter. All forÖthat.

That makes it three straight years weíve lost a must-win home game. I didnít officially label this one must-win to try and avoid the must-win feeling since we do so poorly in must-win games. But it was. After NAU this was the other ďgimme.Ē Anytime you tried to count the number of wins necessary to get to the bowl game of your choice you always included this one.

Itís the kind of loss that leaves you with nothing but questions. What just happened here? How could this happen here? And whose fault is it? If you want to blame the players, you lose confidence in these players ever learning how to win. If you want to blame the coaches, you lose confidence in these coaches ever being able to teach players how to win, or being able to recruit players who can learn how to win.

Everything about the still-young 2007 season is upside down. The areas that had us nervous (the offense and special teams) have played pretty well, and the one area with which we had no doubts (the defense) has been stunningly bad.

Say all you want about the turnovers and dropped passes, but at the end of the day the offense did enough to win. The entire offseason we quoted stats like, ďWhen the offense scored blah-blah points we were blah-and-blah last year.Ē Well, the offense got its blah-blah points this week. Twenty-seven should be enough to win as a double-digit favorite at home. The defense just played blah.

The new offense has been exactly what I expected at this point in the season: A clear improvement in yards (409.7 a game) and points (26.3 a game), and a lot of mistakes. Sure, I thought the mistakes would be interceptions and bad passes instead of fumbles and 79 dropped passes, but they are still mistakes that can be easily explained by inexperience with the system. This was Game 3 for the offense. It was Game 37 for the defense.

How on earth is the defense worse than last year? Itís the same guys supposedly doing the exact same jobs. There are ten returning starters, and eight of them are seniors! And if you donít think the defense is in fact worse, let this soak in: With the completion of the non-conference schedule, we have now given up more points than last year...and that includes the LSU game.

Last year: BYU 13 + LSU 45 + Stephen F. Austin 10 = 68
This year: BYU 20 + NAU 24 + New Mexico 29 = 73

And it's against an easier schedule! At BYU < at LSU, NAU = SFA, UNM < BYU at home.

If a defensive coach can't put an elite defense on the field in Year 4 with ten returning upperclassmen starters how is he going to do it with younger, less experienced players? That's the problem with 2007 ending badly. If not now, when?

And the deck is heavily stacked in favor of this season ending badly. We open the conference season on the road against the second best team in league, and theyíre scoring a ton of points. Oh, and they remember that we essentially knocked them out of the Rose Bowl last year.

I fully expect the Cats to play better next week. I really do. We always play better against the good teams. Itís easy to be focused when playing top ten teams. But just because you play better against a properly motivated (not to mention superior) team, it doesnít mean youíll win. And thatís when the math gets really ugly.

Start 1-3 and you only have two losses left to avoid another non-winning season, and thatís with a trip to play the #1 team in the land on the horizon. That makes Washington State at home on September 29 beyond must-win. Itís do or die. The sad reality is even if we beat WSU, the game after that (at Oregon State) is probably just as life-or-death. We arenít going to win five straight games to close the season. The margin for error has always been thin with this team. Now itís splitting-a-razor-with-a-razor thin.

And if things donít get better? If we post another losing season with the exact same guys as last year? Weíll save that topic for later, and hope later doesnít arrive before the end of the month.

So, yeah, this was a bad loss. Year 4 isnít exactly the time to be posting the most inexcusable defeat of your young coaching career. If youíre desperate for a silver lining, the good news is the last time we felt this way the Cats shocked their own fans and won four of the next five.

One thing's for sure, an insignificant game on the schedule turned into a really big deal. It's going to be a turning point game; we just don't know which way we're turning. Is this the loss that will (finally) serve as the wake-up call needed to get 100% focus from everyone 100% of the time? Or is this the loss that will be remembered as the first big nail in the Stoops Era coffin?

Either way, at least I can say I was there.

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