It's probably about time to put fingers on the keyboard and close the book on this game, right? It's been almost two full days since Baylor ended the 2013-2014 season with a disappointing 52-42 loss to the Central Florida Knights in the Fiesta Bowl, and despite my best efforts to make it, the game isn't going away.
As I said last night in the Sugar Bowl thread, I've rethought somewhat my outright dismissal of the idea that the Art Briles coaching saga, which has since been resolved in our favor, might have played a role in the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl. I did that initially because it seemed reductive and easy. Excuses being what they are, I didn't want to lose sight in the immediate aftermath of the game of what actually happened: UCF kicked our butts. Looking at it now, though, it is at least plausible to me that any inner turmoil Briles may or may not have been experiencing could have an impact on the team despite his best efforts to the contrary. Because I believe Briles is a fundamentally honest person, I take his statements that he wanted the team's focus (not to mention that of the media) on the game itself and not his future. From what I understand, however, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone in Arizona for the game from the Baylor side not talking about the situation. It's difficult to imagine that wouldn't extend to the players, as well, no matter what the coaching staff did to hone their attention.
Viewing things on that macro level, then, it's easy to say that it could have played a role somewhere, in some way. It's less easy once you abandon the 30,000 foot view for what actually happened on the field. Did speculation about Briles' future keep us from diagnosing and reacting to Blake Bortles on the zone read? Did worry that our coach might leave stop us from tackling in open space? Put our trademark deep throws slightly out of reach? Cause a false start or five? Recognizing that I've been accused (rightfully, I think) of wrongfully diminishing the mental aspect of the game before, I doubt that was the case. We didn't lose because we were unsure who would coach Baylor in 2014. We lost because we played a team with an extremely good offensive game plan that put force to that plan. They overwhelmed us at the point of attack repeatedly on both sides and won the game for it. Kudos to them.
One of the newest football cliches I've actually come to like refers to a "schedule." Teams want to be "on schedule," mostly on offense. Getting "off schedule" means getting outside your plan and what you want to do. In this game, Baylor was never what I would call "on schedule." Ours is an offense designed to score points as quickly as possible, to build a rhythm and roll over its opponent. Because we never once held the ball tied or with the lead, we were never really able to do that. Instead, from the first drive on we were playing from behind basically the entire way, unable to capitalize on the few chances given by the defense in the first half or to rely on them to give basically any in the second. Halfway through the first quarter, we trailed 14-0. It's hardly insurmountable for an offense like ours, but there is no team in the game for whom that is on schedule. Nobody plans to be down two touchdowns. From there we saw flashes of the Baylor team we expected on both sides, but for one reason or another (Bryce Petty slipping on fourth down at 14-7, the interception in the endzone at 14-13, the missed field goal to end the first half), we never got going.
One of the reasons, probably one of the biggest reasons, for that failure relates to penalties. We had 17 of them for 135 yards. UCF had 4 for 40. Bill Parcells is a huge fan of the concept of "hidden yardage:" stats that don't appear in the normal box score but can help explain the outcome of the game. This is one of those things. Time after time, Baylor saw its own offensive drives disrupted by mindless procedure penalties (false starts being the biggest) or UCF's extended by pass interference. Three of UCF's touchdowns, at least, came on or as the result of big plays occurring immediately after a third down conversion granted by penalty. By the end of the game, UCF's formula for success was no more complicated than run, run, throw and draw penalty, score. It's good work, if you can get it.
If Baylor wants to take the next step to be a true contender, these are the kinds of things we can't have happen. Sure, there were a couple of calls with which we can quarrel as fans, but false starts and illegal formations aren't judgment calls. Those don't happen in the heat of the moment because your man is about to beat you and you grab his jersey. That is at least somewhat defensible. These are not. I'd love to know how many drives we had this season where a sequence (of downs) included a procedural penalty and ended in a punt. That might be my weekend project. Losing because you got beat sucks (and that happened). Contributing to that loss by shooting yourself in the foot repeatedly sucks even worse.
Coming off this game, I've come to terms with something I've battled for a long time: Baylor is not the same team away from FCS. I can't explain it, nor can I provide evidence that it is true other than the performances, which basically give rise to an entirely circular logical situation. I still believe it to be true. For reasons that are probably impossible in practice to diagnose, we are not the same team when we play on the road as we are at home. We're not as aggressive on either side of the ball, we don't call the same plays ... it's incredibly frustrating to watch. Something changes for us when we leave FCS. This game was just the latest example, and I realize by saying that I'm drawing conclusions from a fairly small sample size of games. I'm cool with it.
For my last big thought, I wanted to thank everyone who made the trip out to Arizona this week to support Baylor. Despite the lower overall attendance, every report from the game itself said Baylor Nation showed up in force, outnumbering UCF fans from anywhere between three and five-to-one. That's not a slam on UCF -- Florida is a lot further from Arizona than Texas -- so much as a recognition that Baylor proved the doubters of our fanbase wrong. We got a lot of heat for returning so much of our ticket allotment from people who don't understand how slanted the system is now. As it turns out, Baylor fans just took the totally rational approach of buying cheaper tickets on the secondary market. The crowd sounded great when Baylor did positive things and the pictures from the pep rally/events were awesome. Great job.
- Sweet touchdown, Bryce. Such flip. Very acrobatic. I see you catching TDs, Clay Fuller. That was actually a great pass and catch.
- We clearly missed Spencer Drango in pass protection (does it seem like most of Kelvin Palmer's penalties come when playing LT?), but the huge gaping hole in our team for this game was MLB Bryce Hager. With Hager out we had to move Lackey inside as in the past few games, pushing Brody Trahan into playing time against a team that constantly exploited him with misdirection. It was like the first drive of the TCU game except for 4 full quarters. Brody has been a huge part of this team as a reserve and on special teams, but this was not his finest hour.
- Nor was it Terell Burt's, either. Burt has played some outstanding games this year for Baylor, including that same TCU game, but in our two losses, he was abused. Against UCF he tackled poorly, covered poorly, and just struggled generally. Not taking him out was a sign that we probably didn't have a better option for what they were doing. Despite that, I remain extremely confident in Burt's abilities and know he will be a better player against SMU in McLane Stadium than he is now.
- Incidentally, these are the kinds of things I'm talking about when I say that UCF had an outstanding game plan. With the break of the bowl game, George O'Leary's staff was able to identify our specific weaknesses and scheme effectively against them. More often than not, good coaching makes a tremendous difference in the preparation-heavy atmosphere of bowl games. Whatever he might have done with the Notre Dame thing, O'Leary is a really good coach.
- As for players that impressed on defense, I was very happy to see Phil Bennett's staff react to our early struggles on the DL by inserting Shawn Oakman in place of Terrance Lloyd. Oakman stabilized things considerably, basically taking the entire left side away from UCF for long stretches. The Knights' renewed domination of our line in the fourth quarter coincided neatly with the departure of Oakman and my other bright spot: Andrew Billings. I'm going to rewatch the game this weekend looking for plays where Billings and Oakman lined up next to each just to see the UCF backs say NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE and go the other way entirely.
- Very happy to see Jay Lee and Corey Coleman step up with Tevin Reese and Antwan Goodley mostly sidelined. Given my predictions for him when we found out he'd play, I was extremely surprised to see Reese not have a bigger role. A lot of that was Petty's inconsistent passing down the field, but I can't say we targeted Reese more than 7 or 8 times, far fewer than I expected. Jay Lee scored on that play, they just didn't have a good angle to review it. How does an NFL stadium not have cameras on the goal lines?
- I'll be honest -- OU and Tech winning their games over heavily-favored foes makes me wish we had been able to pull out the win. The Big 12 is now 3-2 in bowl games going into tonight's Cotton Bowl, with two of those wins being games in which nobody thought the conference had a chance. Baylor winning could have put an exclamation point on a very strong bowl season, but alas, it was not to be.
- Congrats to the UCF fans that have been hanging around here for a while and all the best to your program in the future!
The open thread for tonight's games will go up at 6:30 for the start of the Cotton Bowl. Hope to see everyone back!