By DAVE CAMPBELL
Founder and Editor in Chief of Texas of Texas Football Magazine
Somebody said it couldn’t be done; actually, a whole lot of people, including the so-called experts, said the Baylor Bears, losers of six straight football games, couldn’t beat the Boise State Broncos in their Tuesday night (Dec. 27) Cactus Bowl showdown in Phoenix, Ariz. After all, winning bowl games in Phoenix just seems to be what the Broncos do. They beat Oklahoma there (43-42 in double overtime) in the Fiesta Bowl in 2017, TCU (17-10) in 2010, and U. of Arizona (38-30) in 2014.
Whether it is in the Cactus Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl, put Boise State in it and play the game in Phoenix and the Broncos seem to find the weapons to win.
So they were 7-point favorites to beat the Bears on two days after Christmas Day of 2016. Indeed, some of the Las Vegas tout sheets thought they would win by a bigger margin than that.
But they didn’t. They didn’t come close. Baylor led from wire to wire. It was 7-0 at the end of the first quarter, 14-6 at halftime. 24-6 at the end of the third quarter, and 31-12 when the final whistle sounded. By then the 33,328 shocked spectators had been convinced. And likewise ESPN’s audience of millions.
It was a wild and topsy-turvy season for Baylor. The Bears began the season by winning their three non-conference games easily, then began conference play by playing probably their best game (Baylor 35, Oklahoma State 24) of the regular season, then staged a monumental fourth-quarter comeback (45-42, with a field goal kicked in the last few seconds) to beat Iowa State in Ames, easily subdued Kansas (49-7) at homecoming, played Texas to a virtual draw in Austin before losing by one skinny point (35-34) – and then the bottom fell out, starting with the TCU game.
When they lost to eventual Big 12 Conference champion Oklahoma in Norman (45-24) – and lost their prize senior quarterback Seth Russell for the season in the process – defeats became the order of Saturday after Saturday. Interim head football coach Jim Grobe coached as well as anybody could, and better than anyone could have expected under the circumstances, but it didn’t seem to matter.
That is, not until the West Virginia game, played on Dec. 3 in Morgantown. In that season finale the Bears lost by only a field goal (24-21), the closest they have played the Mountaineers on that team’s gridiron since West Virginia became a member of the Big 12 Conference.
Maybe that was an omen most of us missed or ignored. But it certainly was there for all to see in Phoenix. The conclusion of this season was a reminder of how it was 12 months ago. After losing three of their last four regular season games (to Oklahoma, TCU in double overtime and then Texas by 6 points) the Bears bounced back with a big surprise, upsetting No. 10-4 ranked North Carolina, 49-38.
This was a game that proved the big-time talent of freshman quarterback Zach Smith, who threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns; of super-swift receiver K.D. Cannon (14 receptions for whopping 226 yards and two TDs); and sophomore tailback Terence Williams (25 carries for 103 yards). Both Smith and Williams will be back (there had been considerable talk that Smith was planning to transfer, but before the bowl game he said he will be back; if he had transferred, the Bears would not have had a proven golden arm on campus). Bus alas, Cannon announced after being named the game’s outstanding offensive player that he now will opt for the NFL.
But tried-and-true linebacker Taylor Young, a 5-10, 225-pound junior who was voted the game’s outstanding defensive player after leading everybody with 17 tackles (12 solo), has indicated he also will be back. In all, the Bears started nine underclassmen (that’s including Cannon) on offense and seven on defense. Also, all but two of Baylor’s backups for the bowl game will be back. New Baylor football coach Matt Rhule attended the game so he saw the Bears make their final statement for this 2016 season, and it was an emphatic and ringing one.
The Bears started the game by staging a promising drive that moved 52 yards before Smith threw an interception, just about his only bad play of the game. But the Broncos also were stymied on their first drive, then junior Travon Blanchard picked off one of Bronco QB Brett Rypien’s passes and returned it 14 yards to the Baylor 19, and there went the Bears. They needed 6 plays to cover the 81 yards but three passes, one to Chris Platt and two to Cannon for 49 yards and then for 30 yards and the game’s first touchdown. Chris Callahan’s PAT was good and the Bears were ahead to stay.
The Broncos put three points on the scoreboard early in the second quarter (57 yards in 17 plays before Tyler Rausa’s 27-yarder was good). The Bears retaliated immediately with a 5-play 81-yard blow that featured Smith’s 68-yard pass to Cannon that scored the touchdown. Callahan again kicked the extra point.
The Broncos surged back, reaching the Baylor 7-yard line. But Rypien again tried to get those final yards via the airways and again a vigilant Bear, Orion Stewart, was there to intercept his fateful fling. And again the Bears answered with a long touchdown drive, 99 yards in 15 plays with redshirt freshman JaMycal Hasty (in the entire game he carried 7 times and gained 34 yards) gaining the final 28 yards on three runs. Then Callahan did his thing again.
The Broncos had enough time left before halftime to drive 56 yards on 15 plays to kick their second field goal, that one a 26-yarder delivered again by Tyler Rausa.
The Broncos produced nothing of real significance offensively in the third quarter but the Bears refused to stay quiet. With 9:13 left in the third quarter they rolled 78 yards in 21 plays, overcoming two red flags along the way, and then called on Callahan for a 34-yard field goal that moved them into a 24-6 domination.
The fourth quarter saw Baylor strike first, surging 71 yards in 12 plays with Smith’s 14-yard pass to Ishmael Zamora scoring the touchdown that moved Baylor further head, 31-6. Terence Williams did some productive running on that drive and another Smith pass to Cannon also yielded a first down. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty forced the Bears to kick off from their own 20 following the touchdown but the Broncos were still stymied. The Baylor defense just refused to give much ground.
Finally, with 2:13 left in the game, Boise State did finally score a touchdown, driving 70 yards in 5 plays and reaching the Baylor end zone when Rypien completed a 28-yard pass to Cedrick Wilson. But fittingly, Boise State’s try for 2-point conversion failed when Taylor Young intercepted Rypien’s next pass in the end zone.
It was an unexpected and complete victory, marred only by that old bugaboo, penalties. Once again the Bears wound up leading the Power 5 conferences in penalties. In the Cactus Bowl they were called for infractions 11 times resulting in 125 yards in lost yardage.
But on the positive side, the Bears led in first downs, 29-25; in net yards rushing, 140 to 83; in net yards passing, 375 to 305; and consequently in total yardage, 515 yards to the Broncos’ 388 (although the losers actually ran more plays, 89 to Baylor’s 83). The decisive difference was spelled out in Baylor’s average per offensive play – 6.2 for the Bears, 4.4 for the Broncos.
Other differences: Baylor lost no fumbles and intercepted two passes (no turnovers); the Broncos lost one fumble and suffered two interceptions (3 turnovers). The Bears averaged 48 yards for their two punts, Boise State 41.3 yards for three punts; BU defenders came up with four sacks resulting in 28 yards of lost yardage for their opponents while Boise State sacked the Baylor quarterback only twice for 7 yards of lost yardage. The Bears scored 21 points off their opponents’ turnovers while Baylor lost no points in that department.
So all in all it was a complete victory, for both the offense (meaning the offensive line) and the defense. Other than Taylor Young (who was all over the field), Baylor’s defense was led by senior linebacker Aiavion Edwards (11 tackles including 10 solo stops); freshman cornerback (9 stops); senior cornerback Orion Stewart (five tackles, one QB sack, two tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and an interception); redshirt freshman defensive end Tyrone Hunt (5 tackles, two QB sacks); and junior defensive end K.J. Smith (4 tackles, one QB sack).
And regarding recruiting, I saw new Baylor football coach Matt Rhule at the Baylor Lady Bear victory in their conference-opening 87-57 victory over Kansas State this past Thursday night, and told him Baylor fans were rejoicing that he had persuaded Zach Smith to return for his sophomore season in 2017. “If Smith had transferred, you would have had no experienced quarterback to start the 2017 season,” I pointed out. “But it would help if you could get another one as his backup, if Smith happened to get hurt early in the season.”
But I quickly found out he was way ahead of me. “We’re working hard to get three good ones,” he said.