By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Baylor saved its best for last.
Putting together arguably its most complete game since last year's Russell Athletic Bowl victory over North Carolina, the Bears (7-6) steamrolled to a 31-12 rout of the Boise State Broncos Tuesday night in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl.
Freshman quarterback Zach Smith threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns, offensive MVP KD Cannon hauled in a career-high and school bowl-record 14 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns and running back Terence Williams recorded his fourth 100-yard game of the season with 103 yards on 25 totes.
But this one was about the defense. Phil Bennett's unit forced three turnovers, had four sacks and held the Broncos (10-3) out of the end zone until Brett Rypien hit Cedrick Wilson with a 28-yard TD pass with just 80 seconds left.
"I felt like we dominated," said senior safety Orion Stewart, who had an interception, a fumble recovery, one sack and two stops behind the line in his final game for the Bears. "We dominated the line of scrimmage. That's where it starts. And people on the back end made the plays they were supposed to make. . . . Everybody in the locker room wanted to win. Especially on the defensive side, we flew around to the ball."
Bennett got a Gatorade bath from his players just moments before interim head coach Jim Grobe got dunked in the waning seconds of the game.
"I don't want to downplay how excited I am and happy that we won the last game. I mean, it's going to be a big win that stays with me for a long, long time," Grobe said. "I told the team in the locker room after the game, what an honor it's been for them to let me in their family. . . . But tonight, when they throw a bucket of Gatorade on you, it makes you feel pretty good. I'm truly blessed to get a win tonight."
The Bears had lost six in a row after a 6-0 start, going winless over the last two months of the season. But for one special night, they put all that in the past.
"I hate losing," Stewart said. "After going two months without a win, I'm at home psyching out." When asked if he saw this kind of dominating performance coming, Grobe had to admit, "Honestly, no."
"I'd like to say yes, and it would make me seem really smart," he said. "But I didn't see that coming. . . . From my standpoint, I was really going into the game hoping to be there in the fourth quarter with a chance. We got a lot of big plays on both sides of the ball and just played probably as hard as we've played all year.
"One thing that was really fun for me tonight is our kids enjoyed it. A lot of kids playing hard and enjoying being out on the field. Our guys looked like kids out there playing. And that was fun."
Baylor started out strong, driving 52 yards in eight plays on runs by Williams and Smith passes to Cannon and Chris Platt, who finished with 82 yards on six receptions. But that one went for naught when safety Chancellor James picked off a pass at his own 2-yard line.
Boise State looked like it might get on the board first, driving down to the Bears' 29 on its second series of the game. But, on first-and-10, Travon Blanchard picked off a Rypien pass at the 5 and returned it to the 19.
"We had a lot of doubters, but for us we just fed off of that. We love the doubters, we embrace the vitriol," said Blanchard, who had his first interception of the season and fourth of his career. "As a defense, we're taught to give them nothing, make them everything they get."
The Bears answered with a six-play, 81-yard drive, with Cannon going up over cornerback Jonathan Moxley to make an unbelievable catch on a 30-yard TD pass from Smith for the early 7-0 lead.
"They were just kind of giving us some one-one coverage," Smith said. "And with him on anyone, we think it's a win for us. He's a big playmaker, so I got to him and he usually gets the job done."
Converting twice on third down and once on fourth, the Broncos came back with a 17-play, 57-yard drive. But, freshman cornerback Grayland Arnold dropped running back Jeremy Nichols for a seven-yard loss, forcing Boise to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Tyler Nausa.
"We don't want to give up points," Stewart said. "If they get down there and we give up three, that's a win for us. But at the same time, you get a turnover, that's a big win. That's a win for the whole team."
Smith went back to Cannon on the Bears' next possession, hooking up for a 68-yard touchdown pass that extended Baylor's lead to 14-3.
Stewart ended another scoring threat by the Broncos with an end zone interception, taking it out and getting tackled at the 1.
"I want to be a playmaker, I want to get in the end zone," Stewart said. "I wanted to break that interception record. I was looking at the book, and it said the longest (interception return) was like 70 yards. I was trying to get 100 and something."
Boise got a defensive stop, but A.J. Anderson was flagged for a questionable running-into-the kicker penalty to keep the drive alive for the Bears.
Smith hit Platt for 15 and freshman Jared Atkinson for 13 before freshman running back JaMycal Hasty finished it with three straight carries, taking it in from five yards out. Chris Callahan's extra point made it 21-3.
The Broncos settled for another chip-shot field goal by Rausa at the end of the half, with Baylor taking a 21-6 lead into the locker room.
"If we're going to trade field goals for touchdowns, we'll do that all day and come out with the win," Blanchard said.
With a chance to get back in the game, Boise took the opening kickoff in the third quarter and drove 74 yards in 12 plays. But on fourth-and-goal from the 5, cornerback Ryan Reid broke up a Rypien pass to Wilson.
"It doesn't matter who you're playing, you're trying to score points when you get in the red zone," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. "We didn't do that. The field goals, they're only going to last so long."
Callahan connected on a 34-yard goal at the end of a 21-play, 78-yard drive on the Bears' first series of the second half. Then, Smith connected with Ishmael Zamora for a 14-yard TD pass that put the game away for a 31-6 lead with 10:03 left in the game.
"To go out and lose the last six games," Smith said, "and then come in and win this game, I think it's huge going into next year. We're going to have a lot of confidence knowing what we can do. And we just showed a little bit of what we can do tonight. So, that's huge going into next year, and we're going to build on it."
New head coach Matt Rhule watched the game from a Chase Field suite and said he will try to wrap up the coaching staff within the next week. Rhule's former team at Temple lost to Grobe's former team at Wake Forest, 34-6, in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md.