By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
WACO, Texas - With Baylor's high-flying offense grounded for the first half, the defense kept the 23rd-ranked Bears in it against an upset-minded SMU team that had a few tricks up its sleeves.
Quarterback Seth Russell and the offense returned to form in the second half, but the defense also did its part with Orion Stewart's 33-yard interception return for a touchdown as Baylor pulled away for a 40-13 victory Saturday afternoon before a McLane Stadium crowd of 45,499.
"I felt our kids, when it came time to win a football game, they found a way to do it. That's the bottom line," Baylor acting head coach Jim Grobe said. "I'm proud of our staff, proud of our kids. Obviously, I think we can be a good football team. I don't think we showed today the kind of football team we can be."
The Bears (2-0) certainly weren't at their best, particularly not in the first half, but they still had enough to win their 10th consecutive September game and 13th in a row against SMU (1-1).
"We came out flat, not exactly sure what was going on," senior linebacker Aiavion Edwards said. "But, when we needed to make plays, we did. We turned it around in the second half. The first half was a little slow. We didn't start nearly as fast as we wanted to or should have."
Starting in place of an injured Matt Davis, redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Hicks came out on fire, hitting Courtland Sutton for a 39-yard pass on the first play and throwing for 144 yards in the first quarter.
But in a first quarter they completely dominated on both sides, all the Mustangs had to show for it was a 6-0 lead on a pair of short-range field goals by Josh Williams.
"They kind of came out this week with a tempo we hadn't seen yet," said senior nickel back Patrick Levels, who had a career-high 12 tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one. "It was just getting the calls and getting everybody lined up. It was a little bit of an alignment issue. Once we got that fixed, we were good to go."
Hicks engineered a nine-play, 67-yard drive on SMU's second series, but the defense bowed up inside the 10 and forced a 24-yard field goal by Williams that put the Mustangs on top, 3-0, with 9:12 left in the opening quarter.
After twice converting on third down and marching 84 yards, SMU got stymied again when linebacker Taylor Young stuffed running back Braeden West for no gain on third-and-2 from the 8. Williams tacked on a 26-yarder to push the lead to 6-0, a lead the Mustangs took into the second quarter.
"I really thought our defense, to hold them to six points, was really, really good," Grobe said. "We were backed up a few times. We did a great job to kind of bow our necks and not let them in the end zone."
The Baylor offense finally got a little something going with a 15-play drive that was kept alive with a roughing-the-kicker penalty for Keyfer Roberts' hit on punter Drew Galitz. But like the Ponies, the Bears stalled in the red zone and had to settle for a Chris Callahan 35-yard field goal that cut the deficit in half.
"We can't settle for field goals," sophomore offensive tackle Patrick Lawrence said. "Coaches tell us that we're scoring touchdowns. That's all we want to do is score touchdowns. Field goals aren't good enough."
In a bizarre sequence in the second quarter, the teams traded turnovers on four consecutive series.
Cornerback Jordan Wyatt returned a Russell interception 28 yards to the Baylor 12, but Stewart snuffed out the Mustangs' scoring threat when he leaped high to grab a Hicks' pass intended for Shelby Walker.
The Bears appeared to take their first lead of the game when Russell hit Blake Lynch for a 15-yard touchdown pass, capping off a 19-play, 80-yard drive that included three fourth-down conversions. But video review showed that Lynch lost the ball before he crossed the plane, with Kevin Johnson recovering the loose ball near the back of the end zone for a touchback.
"It was pretty tough, just because we needed points and I'm the one who took the points off the board," said Lynch, who finished with six catches for 95 yards and one touchdown. "I was just trying to fight for yards, and I lost control of it. And I can't let that happen."
When a frustrated Lynch came to the sidelines, Levels told him, "Don't worry about, we're going to get the ball back."
And it took them just one play to do it. Levels stripped the ball from running back Ke'Mon Freeman as he was falling to the ground and then pounced on it to give the ball right back to the offense at the 25.
The Bears couldn't make up for the lost touchdown, going nowhere in three plays, but Callahan nailed a 38-yard field goal that tied it up, 6-6.
Looking more like the offense that's led the nation each of the previous three seasons, Baylor opened the second half with an impressive 10-play, 79-yard drive and went on top, 13-6, when Russell lofted a 31-yard TD pass to Lynch.
"I think it's a situation where, when you know a guy like Seth Russell's maybe not got his best stuff, you don't worry about it," Grobe said. "You just hang in there with him because you know it's coming. You know he'll get it going."
That he did. After struggling mightily in the first half, he was 11-of-19 for 134 yards and two touchdowns and also scored on a nifty 19-yard run.
"As long as we can get the ball rolling and keep the ball in our hands, we have a pretty good shot to win the ball game," Russell said.
He did throw another pick, with safety Darrion Millines returning it back to the Baylor 18. But again, the defense came to the rescue.
On second-and-goal from the 5, Hicks tried to hit a wide-open receiver in the back of the end zone, but 6-foot-2 safety Davion Hall snatched it out of the air and returned it all the way back to the Mustangs' 38.
"I thought the first half, he was as dynamic as anybody around," SMU coach Chad Morris said of Hicks, who was 17-of-44 for 229 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions. "I thought he was on it, he was ready for the moment. I thought the second half, he had a couple of things go wrong. One mistake led to another. That's being a young kid. You've got to let those things go."
After Hall's return, it took the Bears just five plays to stretch the lead to 20-6 on Russell's 19-yard TD run. He seemed to be bottled up on the far sideline, but he cut back and strolled into the end zone with his first rushing touchdown of the season and 13th of his career.
Stewart, who hails from the same Midway program that produced Hicks, made the freshman pay dearly for his next mistake when he stepped in front of a pass to James Proche and returned it 33 yards for his eighth career interception and second pick six.
"That was definitely the play of the game to turn the tide to just get it over the hump of just playing back and forth with them," Levels said.
Hicks did get the Mustangs back in it with a 20-yard TD pass to Sutton, but the Bears shut the door for good in the fourth quarter with Russell's picture-perfect 32-yard strike to KD Cannon and a four-yard TD run by redshirt freshman JaMycal Hasty.
Before Cannon's TD grab, Terence Williams picked up a first down on a fourth-and-one from Baylor's own 40 on the last play of the third quarter. The Bears were 4-for-5 on fourth down for the game, with Russell coming up short on a keeper from the 3-yard line.
"I'm just going to throw out a number, I think we might have gone on fourth down five times behind our 50-yard line," said Grobe, who ran a much more conservative offense in stops at Ohio University and Wake Forest. "And that's not in my comfort zone, I'll just tell you that."
Baylor, which topped 500 yards in total offense (536) for the 30th time in its last 41 games, will go on the road for the first time to face Rice (0-2) at 7 p.m. next Friday in Houston in a game that will be nationally televised by ESPN.
It's the first home game for the Owls, who fell at Army, 31-14, on Saturday after opening with a 46-14 loss at Western Kentucky.