WACO, Texas – In the end, the well-behaved students of the Baptist school stayed in the stands. There would be no field storming after the penultimate game at creaky old Floyd Casey Stadium.
As it should be.
Undefeated No. 6 Baylor was far superior to Oklahoma, and you don’t rush the field after beating an opponent so thoroughly overmatched. The Sooners had all the pedigree, but the Bears had almost all the points.
In big-picture terms, it was a huge night for Baylor football. Probably the biggest in the program’s meager history. A significant slice of the nation tuned in to see a team it has routinely ignored over the years. The fans dressed in black and filled every seat in the 63-year-old ballyard, forcing the school to remove the green tarp that covers the seats in the south end zone.
For years, the tarp symbolized the ennui of Baylor football. Then on a glorious November night, it was gone. The scoreboard above those packed end zone stands blared the new reality: Baylor 41, Oklahoma 12.
“Humbling,” was program builder Art Briles’ word for the scene he’s worked six years to create.
The fans wanted to see if the Bears could beat one of the game’s giants for just the second time in 23 meetings. They wanted to see a Big 12 tyrant overthrown.
They got what they came for. This was Bastille Day on the Brazos.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” said senior defensive end Chris McAllister. “Baylor hasn’t always been a great team. We’re doing a lot of things that haven’t been done here before.”
All true. But in here-and-now, brass-tacks terms, this was an expected result that took a while to take shape. If Baylor wants into the Big Boys Club, wants into the national title discussion this season, then there is more work to do.
And the Big 12 might not be good enough to push an undefeated champion into BCS title game contention.
A 29-point victory over the No. 10 team in the BCS standings jumps off the page, but it’s time for a radical revision of Oklahoma. This is the least impressive Bob Stoops team since his first year in Norman, in 1999, when the Sooners went 7-5 after plummeting from the elite ranks.
It is shocking to see a blueblood program that recruits in five-star circles bereft of a competent quarterback – and by extension, completely hopeless on offense. The Sooners couldn’t run even a little against a defense that crowded the box. Their lone playmaker was wide receiver Jalen Saunders, who at times seemed like the only guy QB Blake Bell threw at (and usually missed). Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s hodgepodge gameplan almost smacked of desperation.
It was bad enough that Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard tweeted the following Thursday postgame:
Embarrassed by the way we played.I apologize to our fans for having to watch what we just did on that field. Love this team though. #Boomer— Gabe Ikard (@GabeIkard) November 8, 2013
One of the explanations from the Sooners camp for this futility was the season-ending injury to fullback Trey Millard. Make no mistake, Millard is a great player and a future pro – but if your offense in this day and age is rendered useless by the loss of a fullback, you’ve got serious issues.
Oklahoma has serious issues. This is a team that scraped its way to one offensive touchdown against West Virginia and Texas, and two against TCU. If it weren’t for a victory at Notre Dame – truly the only quality non-conference win in the entire, underwhelming Big 12 – there would be nothing of note on this team’s resume.
Yet for the first 1 ½ quarters, Baylor’s national statement game was an absolute mess. This was a striver program that was overly amped for the moment against an overrated shell of a power program. Baylor couldn’t make mistakes fast enough, and still Oklahoma had no ability to take advantage and get into the end zone.
The Bears were flagged six times for 58 yards in penalties in the first quarter, four of them personal fouls. Quarterback Bryce Petty, the national leader in pass efficiency by a wide margin, completed only four passes until the final minutes of the first half, and held the ball too long several times – once resulting in a safety. Midway through the second quarter, the Sooners led 5-3.
“It was ugly,” Petty said. “It was an ugly game, really. I know the score is a little bit lopsided, but we didn’t play as clean as we wanted to.”
The Bears steadied themselves and eventually untracked their blitzkrieg offense that has slashed through almost everyone this season. But this was a night for the most overshadowed unit in America: the Baylor defense.
Even as the Bears have grown steadily more competitive in the Big 12, the primary path to victory was to win shootouts. The last two Baylor teams surrendered an average of 37.2 points per game.
This year, that average is 15.4.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is in his third year at Baylor. He’s seen his unit steadily improve based on the competition in practice. For 40 or 50 snaps on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Bears practice “good on good” – first-team offense against first-team defense.
That battle is less lopsided now than it used to be.
“We have a juggernaut on offense,” Bennett said. “I judge where we’re at by how we do against them. We’ve got to the point where we can compete with them.”
With a newly well-rounded team, Baylor can beat anyone in the Big 12. But their upward mobility in the BCS standings is open to vigorous debate.
The Bears own no quality non-conference wins, having trampled Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe. Neither does anyone they will play the rest of the way, as the league largely flopped in September. The signature Big 12 win is the aforementioned Oklahoma victory over Notre Dame, and Michigan can boast the same thing in a threadbare Big Ten.
Oregon’s upset loss at Stanford on Thursday night solidifies Alabama and Florida State as the strong BCS favorites. The debate is over on who should be third, and the Bears are just another part of that mix along with Ohio State and Stanford. They're undefeated like the Buckeyes, but locked in the same uphill fight against strength-of-schedule doubters.
Nice as the Baylor win was Thursday, it didn’t prove enough to significantly alter the BCS pecking order.
In the afterglow of a landmark victory, Briles wanted no part of that conjecture. Asked what kind of statement beating Oklahoma made in national title terms, he replied, “Zero. We’ve played eight games. When this season started, you check our ranking. (They were unranked.) Everything we’ve done, we’ve earned.”
On this night, where historically downtrodden Baylor will end up in a convoluted and controversial system seemed secondary to the precious present. Blowing out once-mighty Oklahoma in a packed, tarpless stadium seemed reward enough.