Monday, September 21, 2015

The Sweet Embrace of Unrealized Expectations

Happens every year, you know? That moment when you realize your team won't be as good as you thought and hoped they would be. Last year it was probably the TCU game. Confidence was riding high after beating two creampuffs only to get boat raced. Yeah, we'd later come to find out they were a far, far superior team; but in week three we thought they'd be pretty ordinary while breaking in a converted QB and new offensive scheme. The year before that was at home to Iowa, where we went in 4 - 0 and basically opted to curl up by the fire and oh, look, toasty dogs and applesauce, let's not play football today, Mom.

Not sure what it's like for you, but it's an actual physical sensation for me. You feel it in your guts and it kind of makes your heart hurt. I like to think the feeling is generated by resonance from the screams as my hope is burned at the stake by the malevolent forces of reality. My life coach says hope lives in your heart, so that explanation seems consistent with anatomy, at least. And, like an itch you can't scratch, it evades any attempts at amelioration. Booze, Xanax, even cauterization via white-hot coat hanger through the nose still leaves you feeling hollow inside. Nine months of optimistic expectations don't die fast and quiet.

Anyway, I think the Saturday's game against Kent State was this year's entry.

Yeah, we won, I get that. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you win by one or fifty - it all looks the same in the W column. But, in the area of expectations and the ebon abyss of existential pain, style points mean something.

Yet it's still weird to feel so glum after a win. I was immediately reminded of how I felt after the 10 - 9 win over NDSU in 2006, which really, really felt like a /does scare quotes motion with hands/ "win." But we were outgained in that one 372 yards to 261. No idea how we made it through, friends, but this clearly isn't as bad a situation as that  (we outgained Kent State 288 yards to 142). Then I thought of last year's win over SJSU, where the optics weren't bad - we won 24 - 7 - but we only completed one (1) pass on seven (7) attempts. I pretty much spent the five years after the NDSU loss poisoning myself with keyboard cleaner so don't have much recollection of my sentiments after that; but after SJSU I distinctly recall a feeling of unease that must be akin to learning you have a tapeworm. Like, you're not going to die or anything, but something really bad is happening. Even then, though, we were playing with our backup quarterback and mashed them for 380 yards of rushing offenses, so it was pretty easy to rationalize and keep hope alive going into the TCU game the following week.

So, this past Saturday's game feels like both and neither of those two. Both, in that it totally failed the eye test (NDSU) and left us with a definite sense that there was something fundamentally flawed with the offense (SJSU) and neither as we were pretty clearly the better team, which was not the case against NDSU and we don't have an easy path to denial of our flaws like we did with SJSU. To make a long story short, I'm not sure either of these games are particularly comparable from either an outcome or optical perspective. Long asides with no tangible meaning are what I bring to the table as a writer.

The point is, Saturday gave us a glimpse into the dark chasm of re-set expectations. Which is that we are who we've been the last few years: a great defensive team with massive limitations on offense. The hopes of a transformation in the passing game due to an influx of young talent are bleeding out, while a mature offensive line with a gang of collective starts is performing, either due to injury, coaching or general ineptitude, like a shell of itself. We won quite a few games the last few years, but this year was to be different. Now, we face the specter that it won't be that different at all. The defense might be better, but the offense might be worse.

Usually, that pain of reality lingers for a day or two, then you can enjoy the season a little more. It becomes clear that this won't be the year, but that's okay, because no other year in your life has been the year either. You kind of emotionally bottom out a little bit, then find acceptance in being who we are.

I think that's where I'm headed now. Even with a win, this feels like a bit of a bottom. I can go on and hope we hold serve at home and maybe surprise someone along the way. We're not as bad as we played on Saturday. Everything will be fine. Just like last year and the year before.

Lingering, though, is a niggling sensation that this isn't the bottom. I'm damaged, I know, but I just have this sense that if the OL doesn't right itself, and quick, we could be in for a season of a surrender cobras. Reaching bottom denotes that things will get uniformly better - or at least no worse. I've seen Intervention, though; I know that sometimes when you think you're at bottom, you're really just on a ledge where your new dealer gives you the good, uncut stuff before switching you to baking soda and talc after winning your business. Like having a new dealer, our issues seem less incidental and more systemic. Something just feels a little structurally unsound.

Well, regardless, I love you all. Let's meet in the parking lots after each game and hold each other and we'll get through this just like we always have.

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