Have you been to Pulman, Washington? No, of course you haven’t. Not really.
The route into the Palouse is given you in a picturesque way as they used to give Knights the road from France to the Crusades. You head into the wheat fields, they say, and then go until there is more wheat, and some rolling hills. When those fields and hills have given way to more fields and hills, you keep going. When you come out, in a hidden valley of wheat-plain tucked amongst those rolling hills, you will have arrived. There, you will see a football stadium surrounded by many establishments kept for the purpose of distributing strong drink, and many people in an giddy, bright-eyed state of expectation. You will never see these people again.
When you go, the memories will be of a vortex of furious bellowing red-and-silver booze soaked partisans, cacophony, a small but handsome stadium, and air raids. So many air raids you will believe you had survived The Blitz and will tell others about it as if you had. Most people who have gone could not be sure later they had really been at all.
And who amongst us has withstood an air raid? None of us. Not really.
Yes, Pullman is a bewitched place, and you are happy to leave it intact; the spectre receding behind you into the wheat and hills like a feverish Field of Dreams. You will grow old and look back and think: I was in Pullman once, when I was very young. I do not know why it was I who returned and not the others. I was one of the lucky ones, they were not.
This was Oregon last Saturday night, and the young ones were the offensive line, where a former walk on got his first start at right tackle, and a true freshman took the violent crouch at left tackle. This youth manifested itself in seven sacks of Marcus Mariota, who is difficult to sack. The Ducks ran offense with a lot of effectiveness, anyway, sheltered themselves as well as they could on defense, and won 38-31, to run their record to 4-0.
There were some strange hypotheticals afterwards over a missed pass interference call on Ducks’ corner Dior Mathis late in the fourth quarter. Washington State got a good route on 3rd-and-13 and their receiver Isiah Myers was pretty clearly interfered with trying to catch an on the money throw from Connor Halliday. But no flag sailed out to mark the penalty. Oregon got a sack on fourth down and then bled out the clock to escape.
I do not know that it was so much an escape, as it was doing what had to be done. Halliday did throw for 436 yards and four touchdowns. He accomplished this on 43 completions over 63 attempts without an interception. He had hit River Cracraft in the corner of the end-zone with 8:57 to play that tied the game at 31-31. But Oregon had simply answered it, taking three minutes before Mariota threw his fifth touchdown of the game to put the Ducks back ahead.
Oregon would have done that all night, too, like a a tired day at the gym playing 1-on-1 with the scrappy, wide-eyed kid who is dying to beat you. The scrappy kid is burying every prayer he throws at the rim, getting more fired up with every make, but you keep backing him down to the elbow and sinking your go-to bank-shot to stay ahead. When it really matters near the end, you muster enough energy to snatch away a rebound and close it out. Wazzu was close and the effort was game, but they never caused any real fear in the Oregon heart.
The strange part came afterward when a columnist convinced himself that Mark Helfrich owed an explanation or an airing of personal emotions for the missed call that helped his guys. Why should the head coach ever comment on something like that? What good could it possibly do him or his team?
Also—this is football–a sport refereed by guys who teach a Political Science class at the Junior College during the week—not immortals. The not undertaken project to database all the football games going back to the prehistoric era (leaving out the other sports) changed for the good or bad by an arguable penalty scenario would take 1,000 years and fill a Pentagon-sized data center. It won’t happen because there would not be any point.
Presenting as stone cold evidence a penalty here or there that would have changed the outcome of a game is dangerous meddling with the space-time continuum. Say Wazzu had been granted that first down. Maybe they scored on the next play, or, (more likely) Halliday would have fired off a pick-six that iced it. Or—maybe Wazzu scored slowly, tying it with just a few seconds left, only to have Oregon scoop up a squib kick and return it for a touchdown with no time left. Then again, the Cougs could have gone for two after an electrifying touchdown and won outright. The possibilities—from spectacular to common—are limitless.
The problem in seriously debating these hypotheticals is they have nothing to do with the quality of a football team. Instead, it boils down to that dirty word: aesthetics. The aesthetics problem endemic to college football has returned this season like typhus to an army. So far the new CFB Playoff, instead of reducing these doomsday discussions about which two teams are going to play for the national championship, has preposterously expanded the discussion to include four.
Maybe that is why people who do not love college football cannot understand it and look askance at the system as something patronized by insane people. In all the media forums it is like 10,000 confident art critics have assembled to look at the same gallery of paintings in an effort to find a consensus on which are best. From the outside it has all the appearance of the worst kind of ultra-annoying masturbatory chaos, but inside the critics, to everyone’s bewilderment, are happy as townies at a fair—happier.
Weird things should be expected at this level of football, so much so that a game without them should be called weird, and a game with many of them should be called normal. Weird is the new normal. That is especially true within conferences where curious internecine rivalries stretch back over centuries and atmospheric pressures seem to bear inordinately on an outcome. Pullman has the atmospheric pressures of something the Hubble Telescope has only photographed.
Oregon was not at its greatest Saturday in Pullman, but it won the game. Damn the aesthetics, the point of this tournament is to win. The last time out the Ducks had thoroughly drubbed a strong
Michigan State team that this week returned home to beat Eastern Michigan 73-14. How is that for aesthetics?
Lou Holtz in his lucid moments says that in college football you have a new team every week. Oregon was one way last week and the next game they will be someone else again. The only important parallels are in the outcomes, the aesthetics are for the critics to misjudge.