So, it’s come to this. Baylor, ranked sixth in the country, winners of all eight games this season and 34 of their last 38, wins 31-24 at Kansas State and we’re left picking nits. But such is life when you play to win games and impress the 12 oracles on the College Football Playoff selection committee.
First, the good. Jarrett Stidham made his first career start in relief of the injured Seth Russell and looked, well, nothing like a true freshman making his first career start in a road conference game. The true freshman completed 23-of-33 passes for 419 yards (10th most in Baylor history) and three touchdowns (plus another rushing score) with no turnovers. He smartly found certain All-American and Belitnikoff finalist Corey Coleman early and often, including a 36-yard connection on the first play from scrimmage, setting the stage for a 7-0 Baylor lead just 1:46 into the game, and an 81-yard touchdown strike to give the Bears a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter. For the game, Coleman snared 11 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, bringing the junior to an astounding 58 grabs for 1,178 yards and 20 touchdowns – with still a full third of the regular season to go.
That said, the Bears did miss Russell on Thursday evening.
Baylor did not run the ball like a team that entered the game ranked third nationally at 338.3 yards per game. Not even close. The Bears squeezed out only 103 yards on 34 carries, led by Shock Linwood‘s 13 carries for 72 yards. The 93 yards and 3.03 yards per carry easily stand as Baylor’s lowest outputs this season.
And while the offense racked up 533 yards on 8.2 yards per snap, it failed to put the game away after leading 21-7 at the half and 31-10 with 12:20 remaining. Baylor came up empty on three second half possessions, including their final touch, which ended in a missed 41-yard field goal by Chris Callahan, which gave Kansas State one last chance to send the game to overtime with 51 seconds remaining.
Part of the reason Baylor could not put the pesky Wildcats away was that the Bears’ defense couldn’t get K-State off the field. Running what amounted to a glorified version of the veer offense, Joe Huebner led the Wildcats by completing 12-of-21 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown (with an interception) to go with 29 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns (with a fumble). Charles Jones added 16 rushes for 76 yards. In all, the Wildcats rushed 48 times for 252 yards, and that consistent ground success allowed K-State to simply sit on the football. Their first possession, a 17-play, 88-yard touchdown drive, lasted nine minutes and 21 seconds. After falling behind 31-10, Kansas State methodically climbed back in the game by moving 84 yards in five plays to pull within 31-17, and then marching 77 yards in seven snaps to climb within one score.
Baylor’s defense did end the game for good after Callahan’s missed field goal when Terrell Burt sniffed out a trick play and intercepted a double pass from wide receiver Kody Cook on the first play of the Wildcats’ ensuing possession.
So while Baylor (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) will not play another team quite like Kansas State (3-5, 0-5 Big 12) in its quest for a third straight Big 12 title, each of the other three teams vying for the league crown saw something Thursday night they can use against Art Briles and company.
Then again, perhaps we’re being too hard on these Bears. After all, Robert Griffin III lost in Manhattan on his way to winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy, and Bryce Petty also needed 59 minutes to put away the SnyderCats on his way to the 2013 Big 12 title. Stidham stands quite tall when stacked against those guys.
But this much is clear: after eight weeks of prelude, Baylor’s do-or-die three-game season begins next Saturday against Oklahoma, and it’ll take a more complete effort than what the Bears showed Thursday night to beat the Sooners.