1. The Baylor Bears lost Saturday to the Texas Longhorns, 23-17. It is their third loss in four games, with two of those being at McLane Stadium. That is the headline some will write about the Bears ending of the 2015 season. There is no arguing it. Those are all facts, but the story behind those three losses looks much differently when you analyze the gray in the very black and white world of sports. The losses count the same, whether straight up, in bad weather, or playing without a quarterback. What we can take from those losses can differ greatly, depending on that shade of grey.
I have already discussed my thoughts of the TCU game in great detail, so we won't rehash that, or the what-ifs from the weather and how it impacted a Baylor season on the edge of greatness. This game simply came down to personnel. The Bears had one healthy quarterback to start the game, and left it with zero. Chris Johnson, making his 2nd career start and 3rd appearance of the season, was injured late in the first quarter and lost of the game due to a head injury and possible leg injury. Already trailing 10-0, Johnson fumbled the ball on the play, setting up a 16-yard TD drive for Texas to extend the lead to 17-0.
With no more scholarship quarterbacks able to play, the Bears put in bakcup wide receiver and primary punt returner, Lynx Hawthorne, in at quarterback. After two strong runs for a combined 33 yards to inch towards Texas territory, Hawthorne attempted the third pass of his rather unlikely quarterback career. The pass was to Corey Coleman, who was double covered. The result was an interception by Duke Thomas, who was tackled by Hawthorne after the return sparking a rather meaningless, yet fun to watch, sideline brawl.
2. The tone was set for the passing attack from that point. Baylor simply could not stretch the field vertically. Looking at it as a heart and soul compliment, the power running game for the Bears is their heartbeat, while the deep passing game is their soul. Without a soul to lean on, the Bears had to focus more on their steady heartbeat. More drives would come for the Bears, as the defense would step up and keep the game within reach. With more possessions came punts, and another interception. Baylor would move the ball well at times, but with no big-play ability, the Longhorns could just wait for them to make a mistake. The Bears would have one scoring opportunity, but it would end with a 40-yard missed field goal.
The first half was over, with Texas chipping on a 53-yard field goal to put the deficit at 20-points. The Bears had built themselves and almost impossible hole to climb out of, due partially to a lackluster start. Baylor was down 10-0 when Johnson went out, and after a promising first drive ended in a 4th down run stuffed for no-gain, the Bears could not move the ball. They would try tricks, such as LaQuan McGowan running the ball for a 2-yard gain near mid-field, or Lynx Hawthorne trying a wide receiver pass that would fall incompete. The Bears were reaching into their bag of tricks, looking desperate to create a spark. As halftime approached, the Bears were more likely to be shut out than actually get back into the game.
3. The spark would be found at halftime, as the Baylor coaching staff installed an offense with no quarterback. They would motion Lynx Hawthorne out wide, to his more natual receiver position, and use a direct snap offense. Johnny Jefferson and Terence Williams would rotate in and out, and carry the load (as Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin were both injured earlier in the game). It was a simple offense, with 4-receivers (including Hawthorne) a single running back and a tight end lined up in the backfield as well. The runner (jefferson or Williams) would get the ball and pick which hole to go into, sometimes following their lead blocker, but usually patiently waiting for a seem to open up.
Jefferson was particularly effective in this system, routinely gashing the Longhorns for big gains. There was little confusion about what the Bears would do, and yet the Longhorns never adjusted their scheme. They let Baylor continue to run it for big gains, while keeping a safety deep.
The Bears installed an offense at halftime that was still superior to the offense that Texas had been using for most of the past few years. It was stunning to watch, as Jefferson ran in for a Baylor score. After another defensive stop, the Bears would travel over 80 yards in 8-minutes to get a short field goal. On the next Baylor possession, they would get a big Hawthorne run to finish off the drive with another 7-points, and get within 3 of Texas. It was happening. Baylor was going to beat Texas without having a viable quarterback for 75% of the game and an offense they drew up at halftime.
It was not meant to be though. Texas would add on an insurance field goal, forcing the Bears to score a touchdown to win. Baylor would turn the ball over on a huge 4th down conversion, where Johnny Jefferson got the first down, but was easily stripped as he was running towards midfield. The Bears would have one more chance, but their passing game would betray them. Jay Lee would take a minimal gain on another trick play, and Lynx Hawthorne would take a needless intentional grounding penalty that would push them back farther. A last second Johnny Jefferson hail mary would go out of bounds and the clock hit zero.
4. What is their to take from this game? Well, I think Briles' days of haivng only 3-scholarship quarterbacks on the roster might be numbered. Briles has always kept his QB totals low, choosing to use 1-2 spots for linemen instead. That choice was the downfall this year. With another true quarterback on the roster, maybe the Bears do enough to win against Texas, and advance to the Sugar Bowl. Maybe not though. I doubt Briles would have taken a redshirt off of true freshman quarterback in that situation. Who would have guessed that Baylor would lose two quarterbacks for the regular season, and lose their third in the last game of the season.
This is not a trend at all. In the last 5-years, the Bears had only had 1 game where they started a backup quarterback (last year Seth Russell stepped in for Bryce Petty against Northwestern State). Seth Russell should be good to go for fall practice, while Jarrett Stidham might be able to come back for the Russell Athletic Bowl game on December 29th. Johnson suffered a head injury to go along with a lower-body injury, but he should be good to go for the bowl game as well.
The biggest thing I take away from the loss to Texas is that the Bears are truly blessed to have this coaching staff. They simply reinvented the offense duing a 20-minute break and brought the Bears to the brink of a miracle win that would have rivaled any in their history. Baylor was close to beating Texas without a quarterback. Think about that. The Bears were the better team all across the field, except at the most important position. A position where Texas has struggled to find any consistency or play-making ability for longer than a flash. A position where the Bears have field a string of players that rival any other teams over the past 6 years. Strange that the quarterback position was the downfall of the Bears in 2015, when it might be the biggest strength they have had over this run of dominance.
5. Ranking the Big 12:
- Oklahoma State
- West Virginia
- Texas Tech
- Kansas State
- Iowa State