PULLMAN – When you’re No. 3 in the country – with a bullet, since Alabama just took one to the heart against South Carolina – and a homecoming spoiler, it’s easy to be magnanimous.
But here’s what the Oregon Ducks avoided Saturday, beyond the axle-snapping pothole that a loss to downtrodden Washington State could have been:
If Wazzu was overmatched in its 43-23 loss to the Ducks at Martin Stadium – and, yes, that’s still the case – the Ducks did not have to be coaxed into recognizing that something is different about the Cougars, even as some of the crimson constituency is reluctant to believe it or dismisses it as too little, too late.
Saturday’s announced audience of 24,768 was the smallest WSU homecoming crowd since 1976, and was that big only because of the Ducks’ many rooting escorts and the fact there was no live TV in these parts. Heaven knows how intimate an affair against Arizona or Cal would be.
Guess we’ll find out.
Yes, the progress remains too incremental. The small surges of excitement continue to be undone by the killing pratfall. The blown assignment that leads to a momentum-swinging 84-yard pass play. The special teams nap that allows a punt runback for a touchdown. The missed tackle on the supposedly run-impaired backup quarterback who then scoots for 43 yards. And the brain-cramp interception at the goal line with the opportunity to get back within a touchdown with a quarter to play.
“We could have made a few mistakes and won that ballgame,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff, with not a hint of irony reflecting the pre-game line that made his team a 36-point underdog. “But we made more than a few.”
They also made a few converts – though one was converted before ever stepping inside Martin.
“They went up 34-28 on UCLA last week and had a score called back,” reminded Oregon coach Chip Kelly, “and (UCLA) had beaten Texas the week before. Paul’s done a great job with the program. This is Year Three. He has them playing hard, and when you have a quarterback in this league, you have a shot. They have a quarterback. I’m a big fan of Jeff (Tuel) and I told him that after the game.”
OK – coaches protect each other. Kelly wasn’t declaring the Cougs to be favorites for the 2011 Pacific-12 title. And as a rule, teams don’t tap dance on another’s grave.
But over the previous three years, the Ducks beat Wazzu by a combined score of 168-27 – including a 53-7 pasting over the previous Coug regime that had a record-setting senior quarterback. This was something different.
“They were impressive,” said Oregon guard C.E. Kaiser. “Where they are now isn’t anywhere near what they were last year. They’ve improved and they gave us a few different looks I wasn’t really expecting.
“Everybody’s a lot more confident, and they’re into it. You could see it after the second quarter. (Last year) they gave up a touchdown and they just weren’t into it. Today they’d give up a touchdown and get right back and get after it.”
Speaking of C.E. Kaiser, let’s.
He’s a fifth-year senior from Central Valley High School in Spokane who’s now started 27 games for the Ducks. And didn’t get so much as an offer from Washington State.
“It was a little surprising,” he admitted. “I actually called UW and WSU and asked where I was on their recruiting depth and they said I was second … or third. I just figured Oregon saw something different and wanted me to play.”
Tired as Wulff’s critics are of indictments of his predecessor, they’re also happy to ignore the things he’s fixed. One of them is a general indifference to the recruitment of local players – even if they don’t project as stars, they are inevitably program-invested and antidotes to attrition, which makes them difference makers whether they’re all-league or not. At least Kaiser’s Oregon linemate, Lake City’s Carson York, was offered by the Cougs – though they couldn’t close. Likewise, Spokane’s Cameron Elisara – a legacy – got a late, lukewarm come hither and wound up at Washington.
And beyond the neighborhood, the evidence of the past two weeks is that the talent gains Wulff has trumpeted aren’t fiction. There’s just one problem.
“We have to believe we can compete with anybody in the country,” said safety Tyree Toomer. “We’ve been delivering blows, but we have to finish out games. We just have to put it together and win because at the end of the day, all you’re going to see is the wins and losses.”
And not the encouraging words of a tested – but not bested – aspirant to the national championship.