This is what we wanted, right?
The Oregon fan’s burden has always been that there will never be enough respect for the Ducks: that the offense is a gimmick, that their schedule isn’t tough enough, largely due to playing in an underwhelming conference. They’re told the Pac-12 isn’t anywhere near as good as the mighty SEC, winner of seven of the last eight BCS national championships – which SEC apologists will reference with zero hesitation. The thinking is that as soon as the Pac-12 is viewed as the SEC’s equal, the Ducks will enjoy from the same benefit of the doubt that has rewarded other SEC teams in recent years.
Presumably, that desire to be respected in the college football conscious is what had many Oregon fans panicked Saturday night when Washington State, the conference’s lone team without a win over an FBS school, found itself tied with the No. 2 Ducks with six minutes remaining in the game.
To stress about the tightness of the game with the Cougars is to miss the larger picture. They may be the conference’s worst team this year, but this is still a team that went to a bowl game last season, with the same coach who has proven to know how to beat highly-ranked schools. If you want the conference to be perceived as every bit as competitive as the SEC, it has to actually be as competitive as the SEC.
The Pac-12 has become a much more competitive league than in years’ past, so when the type of Saturday comes along like the one we had last week, the margin for error shrinks significantly. To complain about a game such as Saturday’s against the Cougars is to either be disappointed or surprised about its outcome. Fans should be neither.
To be surprised by Saturday’s game is to have ignored all the signs indicating it would be closer than expected based on the teams’ first three games. Signs such as:
Struggle Saturday: It feels less frequent recently, but ESPN used to always brand certain weeks with names to inflate their importance: “Showdown Saturday” or “Rivalry Week”. My favorite was “Tailgate Week … presented by Kingsford Charcoal” — which was always wedged early into the season in a ham-fisted attempt to push sponsorship in a way that couldn’t have felt less organic.
Had those fans known how Saturday would play it, the networks could have branded last week “Struggling Saturday,” as nearly every top team was challenged on Saturday by a lesser opponent. Florida State needed overtime to stay No 1.
Alabama was tied at the half with a team who need three OTs to beat Kentucky at home the previous week. The Sooners, South Carolina, Missouri — even going back to Auburn on Thursday night – all struggled. And the most notable outcome, the game preceding Oregon on ESPN, No. 8 LSU losing at home to Mississippi State for the first time since 1991.
By the time Oregon and Washington State kicked off as one of the final games of the night, it should have been apparent that any top team’s goal should have been to finish the day with a win, and worry about how it was attained later. With all the cackling Oregon fans did during the 41 minutes Washington was outplayed by Georgia State, it should have been obvious.
The Recent History of Oregon-Washington State games: Yes, Oregon has won seven straight by an average score of 52-20, but look at how close the games have been early in recent matchups:
2013: Oregon leading 27-21, five minutes remaining in the half.
2012: Oregon leading 23-19, nine minutes remaining in the third quarter.
2011: Oregon leading 15-10 at halftime.
2010: Oregon leading 22-17, three minutes remaining in the second quarter.
And that’s just post-atrocious Washington State. That’s to say nothing of the run from 2000-2006 when the Ducks played in Pullman six times (in seven years!) and either lost, or won by one score or less in all those games. Pullman has always been a trouble spot for the Ducks, and the Cougars never fail to come out fired up, likely due to the fact that Washington State and its fans kind of hate the life out of the Ducks and dream of their demise.
To be disappointed with its outcome feels more like trying to dictate the terms of success. The goal of any football game is to win, which Oregon did. It’s only more impressive that the Ducks won a conference game on the road, regardless of opponent.
Are there causes for concern? Certainly. Yet there isn’t a team in college football that don’t have just as many aspects to work on going forward. This season is wide open, and success is only going to be measured by getting into the playoff and winning from there.
That’s what Oregon did Saturday night; they had the best player in college football cover up many areas of concern to keep those chances alive. They prevailed despite injuries, and now play just one game in a 20-day stretch to try and get its players healthy. The play through four games hasn’t been perfect, but their record is. Saturday’s game can leave you with many feelings, but disappointment shouldn’t be one of them.
Top image by Gary Breedlove