|Like this, only our hopes and pride and less gamma rays.|
Yes, on occasion, that first loss isn't as big of a deal. Our loss to TCU a few years ago was an example of that. They were a top 5 team, it was the first game of the season, we lost with honor and it would have no affect on the B1G standings. Most of the time, though, we lose to what we thought was an inferior team. Maybe it's an out-of-conference game like NMSU in Kill's first year. Maybe it's games like yesterday, where we lose the B1G opener to a team we were 13-point favorites to beat. Those are the ones that suck the air out of you - when all the colors of life turn just a little bit more gray for a few days because you now know something you've wanted your whole life will have to wait just a little bit longer. That's the feeling today.
Quite frankly, we didn't deserve to win in any facet of yesterday's game. We were unable to run the ball, or stop Maryland from doing so. Our special teams play was an abomination and, honestly, the spirit of the team just didn't seem like it was there from the outset. Yes, the defense was lit on the sidelines, dancing around before kickoffs and after big plays, but the fire we saw the three previous games - aggressively hawking the ball and tackling in space - just wasn't there. It was absolutely not what I expected to see coming off the bye week against a team that had been throttled by a directional Florida school (albeit a decent one) the week before.
It's hard to know with certainty where the team goes from here. There have been a number of suspensions recently without a lot of detail on why the happened. (Aside - from my perspective, that's totally fine. We fans don't need to know and we all remember the debacle that was last year when lawyers/parents of the suspended players went public with the details. Fans can't complain about what happened last year and then demand transparency on the suspensions this season. Well, they can, because they clearly are. But it's disingenuous as hell.) My suspicion, supported by some of Fleck's post-game comments yesterday, is these are culture related. We knew coming into this season establishing the culture was priority one for the staff, irrespective of what that might mean for the record this year. I reckon Fleck is less concerned about suspending a few talented guys to lay a foundation for his culture than he is taking heat for benching Croft, Devers and Duke. It's a long-term play for a first-year coach with a long-term contract. It's hard to fault him for that.
The question is, does this become a "culture season" not unlike his first at WMU where Fleck won one game? One where he plays guys that are the most bought in, outcome of the game be damned. If that's the case, the W/L are not going to be pretty and coming off of a nine-win season fans will be out with pitchforks. In that scenario, it's possible we see some additional red shirts getting burned, as Fleck gets his guys out there to learn in the crucible of B1G play. Again, it's a long-term strategy that will be agonizing this season, but may pay dividends down the road, as it did at WMU.
Injuries and depth are probably the main concern for the immediate future. We're already getting dinged at offensive line and defensive back, the two positions at which we could least afford it. We've really got to hope Antoine Winfield's injury yesterday was non-serious as he's our most versatile defensive back in terms of covering the pass and providing support on rushing plays. Fleck said this morning he's considering moving some wide receivers to defensive back to provide additional depth. That's terrifying because it's not as if we have a glut of available receivers. Drew H. played safety in high school, so he's probably the most likely option if Winfield is out for a substantial run. Aside from him you've got Still, Register, potentially Howard and some walk-ons. If we're relying on them to provide meaningful support against the pass, start buying more booze and/or lye.
So that's the state of the program today. We lost to a team we all (including Vegas) expected us to beat handily. Offensive and defensive breakdowns of the sort that don't seem particularly easy to address. And a rash of injuries at the positions where depth is a colossal concern. If I'm the coaching staff, I watch the tape, review the issues, and then put it in the microwave for three minutes like Barry Alvarez's kid did with a live parrot. Let the sweet power of electromagnetism flush the negativity from your system.
The Sunday after that first loss is hard, but most seasons, it marks the low point of the season. We figure out we're not who we thought we were an reset expectations accordingly. In a lot of ways, the remaining games are more enjoyable because you know the ultimate prize is out of reach. Each game carries less meaning, so you can enjoy your beers at tailgating free of interruption from the fear poos. This feels a little different because next week we face Purdue - another team with a first-year head coach - that, by some standards is resurgent. Rightly or not, fans and media will judge Fleck's Minnesota rebuild against what Brohm is doing at Purdue. As Purdue was in substantially worse shape than us coming into the season, a loss might particularly sting.
So for now, the void left by Rose Bowl dreams deferred is occupied, just a little, with the hope we can beat Purdue and maintain our place in the cosmic B1G pecking order. Winning may not provide a great deal of satisfaction - it is Purdue, after all - but a loss would almost certainly put us on track for a long season of angst. So let's all spend a little time this week nurturing that tendril of hope that though we might not be going to the Rose Bowl, at least we're better than Purdue.