Frustrations can either linger or be expunged. One team knew what to do with its frustrations as 2015 came to a close.
The Baylor Bears went to Orlando, the site of DisneyWorld, on a business trip, not a pleasure cruise.
Art Briles and his program felt the sting of a high-profile bowl setback each of the past two seasons. In the 2013 season, Baylor experienced the exquisite pain of losing decisively as a huge favorite. The Bears were curb-stomped by UCF in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. That was one way in which to turn a happy bowl trip into a miserable flight home.
Then came the 2014 season.
Baylor — especially Briles himself — was angry enough after winning the Big 12 but being locked out of the College Football Playoff. When the Bears blew a 41-21 fourth-quarter lead to Michigan State in the first 2015 Cotton Bowl (the second 2015 Cotton Bowl is the Michigan State-Alabama semifinal), they became one of only two teams in the 2014 season to blow a fourth-quarter lead of at least 20 points.
The other team? TCU, which lost a massive lead to Baylor in the game which shaped the 2014 regular season more than any other.
The Bears felt lower than low after that collapse against Michigan State. They had been blown out in a Bowl Championship Series bowl (in the final year of the BCS system), and then they gacked away a New Year’s Six game.
In 2015, they didn’t even win the Big 12. They didn’t return to the New Year’s Six, due to a Biblical flood of injuries at the skill positions. Unlucky and battered, the Bears — without Jarrett Stidham, Shock Linwood, and Corey Coleman — made the trek to Beautiful Downtown Orlando to take on an 11-win North Carolina squad which had finally realized that program’s potential after many teases and false starts over the years.
North Carolina didn’t face the same large quantity of crippling injuries Baylor did. The Tar Heels entered the Russell Athletic Bowl with their No. 1 quarterback, their No. 1 running back, and their No. 1 wide receiver… unlike the Bears.
Was this going to be the time Baylor would put its bowl ghosts to bed? The circumstances could not have been less favorable… but the business-trip element remained.
The Bears clearly showed how much they wanted this victory, but what’s even more revealing is how fully they clearly prepared over the past three and a half weeks.
The Bears have always valued their ability to run the ball under Art Briles; it’s been a foundational aspect of “The Baylor Way” in this ascendant period for the program. That said, Baylor has often used the passing game (the long ball) to register many of its kill shots. The formidable running game kept defenses off balance and set up the long pass, but the running game wasn’t the primary home-run generator for the Bears.
With Chris Johnson, a third-string quarterback, being the team’s best (only?) option under center, the Bears didn’t have to necessarily reinvent themselves against North Carolina. However, they did need to commit to a plan and to a line of attack which emphasized BU’s strengths with a diminished roster.
No Seth Russell or Stidham. No Linwood. No Coleman.
The plan, the passion, and the performance all had to be first-rate.
The offensive line and Johnny Jefferson answered the call:
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) December 30, 2015
After 299 rushing yards, Jefferson had shown to the nation and his teammates that he could replace Linwood.
After racking up 645 rushing yards (Devin Chafin collected 156 and was nearly doubled up by Jefferson; Terence Williams posted 97 yards and was a distant third on his team), Baylor made a resounding statement about its ability to win without a big-play passing game.
Johnson completed 7 passes for 82 yards, with no completions covering more than 20 yards. Five of his completions totaled just 45 yards.
Baylor didn’t hit a single deep ball… and still eviscerated Carolina on the ground. It wasn’t reinvention, but it was a refined point of emphasis, taking a very capable running game and putting more into it — some perspiration, some intentionality, and a lot of urgency.
The result was statistically impressive, but Baylor loaded up the stat sheet on offense in its previous two bowl losses, scoring more than 40 points on the road to defeat. This time, there was a harder edge to the Bears, and while North Carolina committed several massive mistakes to alter the contours of the Russell Athletic Bowl, Baylor raced through the portal of opportunity each time the Tar Heels left it open.
Baylor scored a big-boy win on Tuesday night. A regular season diminished by injuries was salvaged by a postseason in which the Bears brought more of an iron fist to the gridiron and less of a velvet glove. This result also showed that in an ACC largely bereft of formidable offenses, North Carolina’s defense — as much as it did in fact improve in 2015 — did not get tested by the strongest possible schedule.
Baylor certainly made the Big 12 look very good.
The Bears aren’t focused on that point, however; they’re just glad they won’t have to spend another offseason dwelling on another bowl loss.