The OSU Cowboys sprinted out of the gate looking like gangbusters in last night's Holiday Bowl against Oregon. But continuing a disappointing trend, they could not finish the game and the season.
The facts are they sprinted out of the gate in 2008 to a No. 7 national ranking and a 7-0 after two laps around the track. But the final two laps were worse than wobbly. They lost four of their final six games.
Does it look ugly? Yes. Is there hope?
Yes. Start at the top. Start with the guy who half the Cowboy nation wasn't sure would even be the head coach at this time before the season started. Mike Gundy did more than his part. He deserves a lot of credit. Carried himself well. Great offensive scheming. Delegated when he should have delegated. Disciplined players. And more.
One of Mike's best traits is cutting to the chase when breaking down his thoughts on about any subject. Though hyperbole sneaks in at times, his postgame assessments are right on and quote worthy.
His explanation for OSU's giving up an impressive 17-7 first-quarter lead and ultimately losing 42-31 to a nice but by no means naughty bunch of Ducks from Oregon club was not what fans want to wake up and read. But it is accurate. "Oregon was a much more physical football team in the second half."
After shutting down the Ducks early, the second half was.....well, it was what you'd expect: Oregon gained 326 yards and scored 35 points. The Cowboys made some back-up QB no one east of Eugene look like Donovan McNabb when he was at Syracuse: 106 yards and three TDs running and 258 yards and another TD throwing to mostly wide open receivers.
Privately Gundy will say the obvious-the loss of a healthy Dez Bryant and the wounding of QB Zac Robinson were killers. But he knows football is a collision sport. And injuries, suspensions, attrition and the like are part of it as well.
Admirably, his team and fans will hear no public moaning from the $2.2 million dollar man. Credit the call-it-like-it-was fourth-year coach. That's what his players, boosters and fans need to hear. Or not hear.
Clearly Robinson was walking wounded and Dez on the sideline was like Blake Griffin sitting on the bench in a close game loss last night at Arkansas.
But Robinson didn't have to get demolished and sustain jarring hit after jarring hit. Gundy will tell you there's a simple answer for that: Block. Find someone and go block him. Don't get physically dominated. Especially not on both sides of the ball.
The "soft" Pac-10 made an upper-tier Big 12 team look like the soft team. Especially when the game was on the line in the second half. The difference in Oregon and OSU's run AND pass blocking, and especially the physical tackling was startling. OSU's inability to run the ball was as big a culprit as its once again woeful second half defense. Slipping on an awful surface hurt. But you know the second part of that equation. Both teams played on the same field.
Mike knows full well the problems facing his staff at the moment are two words that begin with the same first two letters-D and E. Depth and defense. Words that just won't go away. For now, at least.
It has to be frustrating to Gundy that once again the Cowboys defense faltered. Losing DC Tim Beckman didn't have anything to do with sloppy tackling and the lack of full-bore 100 percent effort in chasing the football.
After a fast start, they either forgot or neglected to realize a football game lasts sixty minutes. Not fifteen or thirty. It's not two-below or flag football for the final thirty. Was there any doubt when the floodgates opened in the third quarter that Oregon was going to score at will? When the separation got more than a touchdown that barring a minor miracle this Holiday Bowl was going to end as anything but.
Predictably, the first words read and heard in some game accounts were Dez, Zac and defense. Defense is the only one I'm buying. Go no further than the only coach to win ten games in Stillwater. Pat Jones says OU should never ever lose to a Boise, West Virginia, Colorado and about anyone who ever beats them. Forget injuries. Forget breaks. Forget where the game is played. You either bring it or you don't.
You can decide if it's too old-school or not. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Everyone plays with injuries to stars. Florida without Percy Harvin slammed No. 1 Alabama. OU won a national title in 2000 with a lame lefty thrower in Josh Heupel whose elbow restricted the playbook and a crippled Jason White who was eight points from another national title even though he couldn't grip a ball enough to throw it forty yards.
OU will line up against a healthy Gator club for the crystal ball without stars Demarco Murray and DeMarcus Granger and their two best middle linebackers. But no one will feel sorry for them. And they shouldn't.
This is not equestrian. There are 119 Division 1 teams. Great teams replace guys who can't play with winning players. Good teams replace the unavailable stars with players who aren't capable of winning big games.
In the end, Gundy has his team on the right path. His decision to bench Bobby Reid means he has an experienced, respected, dependable, talented and stand-up leader of a QB. He's getting more good players. And his fourth team got significant national respect. Solid building blocks.
But the question will remain: Can OSU finish? Can they win critical games down the stretch? Those wristbands worn declaring the goal of winning the Big 12 are nice. But they don't mean anything if teams don't win championships and teams that win key games and championships do just the opposite of faltering down the stretch.
Gundy is a man. He's 41. He knows it and will spit it out to his charges all spring, summer and fall.
Then with a veteran lineup in 2009, the MWC Mad Bomber's improved club will have a lot of positives that will give them every opportunity to make it a special season. A favorable schedule. No travel to Lubbock or Austin. And getting a less-stout Sooner club that might be going from a Heisman QB to a less-capable RS freshman, not to mention a bevy of studs headed to the NFL.
So unfortunately on this eve of 2008, the battle cry remains the same as it has for lo so many a year. "Wait till next year." There's no other choice.
But more than any time in memory, the odds in '09 set up nicely for OSU. There's truth and hope to that painful "Wait till next year" battle cry.
No excuses. Not for not putting 60,000 fans in a 60,000 seat stadium. And for losing the final four of six.
Most teams would kill to have what Gundy has going into '09. There's the commitment from the administration, the money, facilities, schedule, skill position players and improved depth.
Perhaps next year will indeed be the year to sprint to the finish line. Limping across does not work in big boy tackle football.