By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Out of healthy quarterbacks and facing a 17-point deficit 14 minutes into Saturday's regular-season finale at McLane Stadium, the 12th-ranked Baylor Bears turned to a receiver and ultimately the wildcat offense with a pair of running backs.
Looking for another "Miracle on the Brazos," the Bears battled back from a seemingly insurmountable 20-0 hole at the half. But the rally fell short when wildcat quarterback Johnny Jefferson's "Hail Mary" pass from the Texas 47 was knocked away by freshman defensive back Jermaine Roberts near the goal line.
Capitalizing on four turnovers and a pair of missed field goals by the Bears (9-3, 6-3), the visiting Longhorns spoiled the Bears' Sugar Bowl party and escaped with a 23-17 win before a crowd of 48,093 on a sun-splashed afternoon.
"The sad part is when you come out of the locker room and those guys are very emotional," said Baylor coach Art Briles, whose team lost back-to-back games for the first time since losing four in a row during the 2012 season. "They give it their all, and there's a bunch of them in that situation. That's the part that affects me as much as anything. I don't like to see my guys not happy. I like to see them happy."
With a win, Baylor was in line for its third straight New Year's Six bowl and a berth in the Sugar Bowl opposite either Ole Miss or Florida. Instead, the Bears are likely headed to Orlando, Fla., for the Dec. 29 Russell Athletic Bowl against an ACC opponent.
"That's the crazy part, this is probably the best Baylor team since I've been here," said fourth-year junior receiver Corey Coleman, who was honored prior to the game along with the 19 seniors, after deciding to enter the NFL Draft. "The record doesn't say it. We have such great talent and such great leadership. But stuff happens. We just have to roll with it."
Already down to its third-string quarterback, Baylor lost Chris Johnson late in the first quarter with "concussion-like symptoms" on a hit by safety P.J. Locke that resulted in one of the Bears' four turnovers.
"You're ready for that. But when it happens, you're not," Briles said. "Then the realization sets in that a lot of the game plan is essentially out the window."
Fourth-year junior receiver Lynx Hawthorne, who had not played quarterback since his junior year at Weimar (Texas) High School, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight of a game that would determine the Bears' bowl destination.
"It's still football. It's still playing catch, which anybody can do," Hawthorne said. "I feel like the first half I wasn't making it that. It was more like, `Wow, there are people in the stands watching you throw the ball now, and you're running the No. 1 offense in America.' I wasn't playing football. And then in the second half, I was like, `All right, just throw the ball and let them catch it. You have the best receivers in the nation.'''
Committing what he referred to as quarterback "no-nos," Hawthorne was picked off twice on his first three passes and misfired on his first five attempts. But he settled down in the second half and finished 10-of-22 for 64 yards and also rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
"Courageous is a great word. He battled, he fought and did a great job, put us in position to win the game late," Briles said. "He's got nothing to be sorry about, but he played from the inside-out."
After scoring on their opening drive in the first 11 games, the Bears were poised to make it happen again, driving from their own 25 down to the Texas' 30. But Shock Linwood, who sat out the second half, was stopped twice by the Longhorns' defense.
"We convert there, and you don't know what happens," Briles said. "We actually had a third-and-one and then fourth-and-a-foot, and didn't convert. So, I was a little surprised by that, quite honestly."
Texas, which had lost four of the previous five matchups in this series, took just three plays to take the lead. After freshman running back Chris Warren picked up a first down, Tyrone Swoopes hit a wide-open Caleb Bluiett for a 57-yard touchdown and quick 7-0 lead.
Following a three-and-out by the Bears, the Longhorns tacked on a 23-yard field goal by Nick Rose after nickel back Travon Blanchard dropped an interception on second down and receiver John Burt failed to corral a third-down pass over the middle.
Already down 10-0, things went from bad to worse when UT linebacker Anthony Wheeler came out of a major pile-up with a loose ball after Johnson was popped by Locke. Making matters worse, Johnson was out for the rest of the game.
On a series kept alive by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on senior defensive tackle Beau Blackshear, the Longhorns (5-7, 4-5) extended their lead to 17-0 on a nine-yard keeper by Swoopes.
"It kind of shows what we can do, what we need to do," said Swoopes, who threw for 151 yards and one touchdown and added 52 yards and one TD rushing on 10 carries. "This was big for us."
After Baylor clicked off 33 yards on runs by Linwood and Hawthorne, safety Duke Thomas picked off a floating Hawthorne pass intended for Corey Coleman and returned it 30 yards back to the 40. At the end of the return, Hawthorne slammed the defensive back to the turf, setting off a brief benches-clearing melee that only resulted in a 15-yard penalty against UT's Kenny Vaccaro for unsportsmanlike conduct when he pushed Hawthorne.
"I thought there was a little scuffle for the ball, and next thing you know there are people running from both benches," Briles said. "But that wasn't bad. I've been in a bad one. That's in the mall, I've been in an alley. . . . And if they get out of control, it doesn't matter what the coaches are saying. You can't stop it, the referees or anything. That was not a scary situation at all. That was under control the whole time."
When Rose missed a 53-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, Baylor got something going with runs by Jefferson, Hawthorne and Devin Chafin, moving down to the UT 18. But after a costly false start penalty and a dropped pass by Chafin, Chris Callahan missed a 40-yard field goal wide left.
The Longhorns made it 20-0 on a 53-yarder by Rose before Spencer Evans missed badly on a 54-yard attempt right before intermission.
"We certainly thought at halftime that we were going to come back and win, 21-20. That's what we believed," Briles said. "That was our mission and goal coming out of the locker room. We just felt like if we could get a couple stops, a couple scores, that we could flip the momentum a little bit."
Just like Briles drew it up, the defense got a quick three-and-out on the opening series of the third quarter. And with Jefferson in the wildcat formation, with Hawthorne split out at slot receiver, the Bears marched 69 yards in eight plays and scored on a 20-yard TD run by Jefferson.
"We had some turnovers here and there, but we knew we were going to have to run the ball to have a chance to win," said senior All-American tackle Spencer Drango. "We took it upon ourselves . . . It was working (in the wildcat), so we just kept going."
Keeping the wildcat offense going with Jefferson and redshirt freshmen Terence Williams, the Bears took it 82 yards on 18 plays in a drive that ate up more than eight minutes off the clock. But after getting inside the 10, they had to settle for a chip-shot field goal by Callahan that made it a 20-10 game with 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
When the defense stepped up again, stopping Swoopes on a fourth-and-one from the Bears' 39, Baylor pulled back within three on an eight-yard keeper by Hawthorne. With 9:40 still to play, this was suddenly a game for the taking.
Texas got a little breathing room, extending the lead to 23-17 on Rose's third field goal of the game with 4:35 remaining. But that still left the Bears within striking distance of a "Miracle on the Brazos" repeat.
"I remember looking up there and being like, `What in the world, where did the time go,'' Hawthorne said. "Literally, it was a blur. . . . At 4:35, I remember thinking, `We can do this.' Just hold on to the ball, get first downs, manage the clock; you know, stuff that quarterbacks do."
That's where things went sideways. Jefferson popped a run on fourth-and-four from the 31, but defensive tackle Poona Ford stripped the ball and recovered at the 43.
The Bears got the ball back at their own 4-yard line with just 1:24 left on the clock and out of timeouts. But runs of 30 yards by Hawthorne and 24 by Coleman at least made things interesting.
Instead of Hawthorne, it was Jefferson that ended up trying the desperation "Hail Mary" pass on the game's final play. But the Texas defense snuffed it out when Roberts broke up the deep pass.
"It was a disappointing situation for our seniors and our university and our football team," Briles said. "We just have to try to salvage the year by going to a bowl game and winning the bowl game."
Baylor, which finished with substantial edges in first downs (29-15), rushing yards (395-156) and total offense (479-307) will find out its bowl destination and opponent Sunday afternoon.