The Colorado Buffaloes did everything but win Thursday night, playing 12th-ranked Oklahoma State right down to the wire before losing, 31-28.
But -- and with Hawk's teams, that has too often been the case in the last four years -- the Buffs made just enough mistakes down the stretch to let the game slip away.
The miscues came from players and coaches.
A field goal try that bounced off the upright. An unsuccessful bid to convert fourth-and-short on CU's next possession instead of attempting another long field goal that would have given CU a seven-point cushion. A silly personal foul penalty on OSU's ensuing drive, followed almost immediately by a 47-yard touchdown pass to a painfully wide-open running back.
And finally, one last scoring drive from the Cowboys for the winning touchdown, a drive kept alive by two completions on third-and-long. A stop on either play would have shifted momentum back in the Buffs' favor. But ...
But, somehow, as the fourth quarter wore on, we all knew how the story would end.
No doubt, a victory Thursday night would have made athletic director Mike Bohn's decision even more difficult. It would have put significantly more weight on next week's season finale against rival Nebraska.
Today, however, the equation remains virtually the same as it was 24 hours ago. A head coach in his fourth season with twice as many losses as victories to his credit and a 3-8 record heading intothe last game of the year. A young team with talent and promise, but one that has been unable to produce anything remotely resembling consistency as the program lurches toward its fourth consecutive losing season.
As a friend of mine remarked after Thursday night's game, the Buffs played valiantly. They played with heart — but they did not play (or coach) smart.
Had the Buffs picked up a couple more wins somewhere along the line this season, Thursday night's game might have been seen through rosier lenses.
But today, a decision to retain Hawkins for another season would be a gamble that the mistakes and stumbles that became the calling card of this year's team could somehow be eliminated.
That's a gamble I'm not convinced CU's administrators are willing to make — even if making a change is a decision that will cost millions.
What Thursday night displayed once again is what CU fans have seen for much of this season. These Buffs are not a team bereft of talent. Whoever roams CU's sidelines next year will not be working with a bare cupboard.
Rather, it will be well-stocked with a promising quarterback, a solid stable of running backs, a potentially solid offensive line and what could be a terrific group of wide receivers. Almost all of the players who made a difference Thursday night — from Tyler Hansen to Markques Simas to Brian Lockridge to Scotty McKnight to Rodney Stewart — will be back for the 2010 season.
It's the same story on defense. Cornerbacks Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith are returning. Ditto for Anthony Perkins, Tyler Ahles, Will Pericak, Michael Sipili, Marquez Herrod and Jon Major.
Add to those lists a promising group of redshirt freshmen, and CU's talent level should be the best it's been in years, reaching back at least to the latter stages of the Gary Barnett era.
That's exactly why supporters of Hawkins insist the head coach should get a fifth year. If the Buffs are indeed close — as close as they appeared to be on Thursday — one more year might make the difference between potential and production.
But critics insist that one more year will simply yield more of the same. They say Hawkins has had plenty of time to show improvement. They note that a coach in his fourth year should not be hanging his hat on “close.”
And, they rightfully point out, Hawkins' record has gone backward since his second year.
The decision won't be easy. Guaranteed, there is still a significant faction at CU that is not enthralled with the idea of writing another million-dollar check to replace a football coach — particularly at a university that continues to slash its operating budget. Such a decision would most certainly not be met with smiles from that corner of campus.
But now, the question is which set of numbers will carry the most weight.
A victory Thursday night would have no doubt changed the equation at least a little.