Monday Morning QUARTERBACK:

Dearly beloved: We're gathered here today ....

Dearly beloved: We're gathered here today to pay our final respects to the 2001 season for the University of Idaho football team. A season that was full of promise yet came to its final resting place on Saturday.

Some would say Idaho's death was long overdue. The team was diagnosed with a terminal illness shortly after the season began and then suffered greatly, going through a slow death as the losses piled up.

Others say it was almost a wasted life. There was so much buildup about the season and how Idaho was expected to challenge for the Sun Belt title and go to its second bowl game. In the end, however, there were only tears of disappointment as Idaho lost its first eight games and finished 1-10, the worst record in the program's history.

Brethren, I'm here to tell you no season is a wasted season as there are just as many losers as winners every Saturday afternoon. And all 115 Division I-A teams are winners in the eyes of the football gods.

Yes, some teams win more than others, and yes almost all of the remaining 114 teams won more times than Idaho did, but even in the great circle of life, the food chain has to begin somewhere.

This season will likely be remembered for the disasters. The defense finishing near the bottom in I-A in both yards and points allowed, special team breakdowns and penalties and turnovers by an otherwise productive offense. More times than not, Idaho was its own demon. Four missed field goals and an extra point, turnovers, which gave Montana excellent field position, and procedure penalties, which slowed a number of drives. All of those things produced a 33-27 double overtime loss to Montana in Missoula on Saturday, which put the final nail in Idaho's coffin.

But as we pay our respects today, try not to think about those trying times. Instead, try to remember the good things about this season's life. Like quarterback John Welsh, who, despite an injury that forced him to miss nearly a month, put up big numbers this season and easily was the best quarterback in the Sun Belt.

Or even his backup, Brian Lindgren, who had a game of a lifetime by completing 49 of 71 passes for a school-record 637 yards and five touchdowns against Middle Tennessee. Unfortunately, that performance goes hand-in-hand with UI losing the game 70-58.

But there were other seniors besides Welsh who lived full lives this season. Linebacker Brad Rice of Lewiston led the team in tackles despite playing the position for the first time in his career. Even then, he wound up moving from weakside linebacker to the middle late in the season.

And wide receiver Chris Lacy, who's deserving of first-team all-league honors, but may get bumped to second team just because of Idaho's losing ways.

Yet as we take one final look at the season before we bury it 6 feet under, remember that optimism springs eternal. And the world would be a better place if we were all a little more optimistic.

Idaho's optimism comes forth from a number of younger players who played key roles. There's true freshman Brandon Kania, who didn't start at defensive end until the middle of the season, but led the team in quarterback sacks. There was youth at linebacker outside of Rice, and safety Nick Williams was one the team's hardest hitters.

The top six on the offensive line were composed of three juniors and three sophomores, meaning the unit that helped Idaho finish seventh in the country in total offense at 464.8 yards per game and third in passing offense at 347.8 yards per game returns intact.

Oh sure, Idaho needs immediate help, mostly on defense and some at wide receiver, but then again, don't we all need a helping hand from time to time?

The example we can take from the team is that no matter how ugly things got -- or how ugly it made things on itself -- the team stuck together. The unity of the team is to be admired. It would have been easy to wander from this path, but just the opposite has happened. The freshman class, most of them redshirts, have already formed a tight bond.

But there are many questions yet to be answered about what path Idaho will follow in the next few years, including the scheduling of teams like Washington and Oregon instead of lesser I-A powers and how long will Idaho be in a conference that has no geographic rivals?

It's not easy to walk the straight and narrow every season.

That's why it's time to learn from the mistakes and yet let this season go.

The 2001 UI football season: May it rest in peace.


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