In the immediate aftermath of the ULM game last year, I remember feeling pretty dejected.
It was, of course, another gutsy win, in front of a loud and hostile crowd, in a game that was in doubt right up to the very end. It was, to use an old cliche, a win that very much felt like a loss. Our defense had been exposed; Florence had made a number a bad decisions that either killed drives or resulted in turnovers. All around, it felt like starting your car after several failed attempts to get the engine to turn over. Sure, you are glad to get it started and to have the opportunity to make it home that night, but you might as well just drive it straight to the shop and leave it there, because you probably aren't getting it started again in the morning.
All of that dread bore itself out, of course, in a horrific stretch at the start of conference play where the Bears surrendered five of their first six games, enduring crushing losses to West Virginia, TCU, Texas, and Iowa State, and managing their only win at Kansas.
That last loss, against Oklahoma, is where we began to sense that the team was getting itself figured out, ironically. The Bears held close throughout and were in a position to recover an onside kick and potentially tie the game with 1:26 on the clock. They showed heart; the defense didn't get absolutely scorched; and, Lache churned out ninety-one yards in what would be a glimpse of things to come.
The Bears didn't lose another game that season, as I'm sure we all remember.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel at least some of that same, ULM feeling during parts of yesterday's game.
I was especially horrified as I watched the Snydercats rack up fifteen, unanswered points, taking a brief, but terrifying lead into the fourth quarter -- a lead they had managed to build out of the futility of three, gut-wrenching, Baylor drives that ended Punt (at the end of the first half), Blocked Punt (as our first drive of the second half), Fumble (inside our own territory).
I remember feeling (and posting as much on Twitter) like I was going to throw-up.
I remember thinking, "Here we go; here's the Baylor I remember, choking away a game (and, for all intents and purposes, all our hopes for the season) with sloppy, uninspired play, when the stakes really matter."
Yet, this is, emphatically, NOT the Baylor I remember. This is not even the Baylor of last year. True, the circumstances feel the same as that ULM game: costly mistakes and poor play allowed an opponent we clearly outclassed (as far as overall talent is concerned; no offense to any Wildcat fans out there) to hang around and make the game far more tense than it ever should have been. Even the result was the same.
However, there were three, distinct plays, yesterday, that showed this is still a Baylor team about which we can and should be excited.
1. Bryce Petty's 1 yard score on our opening drive.
Yes, we looked jittery and unprepared for that first drive. Yes, the drive basically stalled and was only sustained by a gift of a dumb, late hit as Petty stepped out of bounds in KSU territory, obviously short of the yards we needed for the first down. Yes, in a preview of things to come throughout the game, Glasco Martin - the stout, between the tackles, power back; the thunder to Seastrunk's lightning - was stuffed on three, consecutive attempts from the one yard line.
But here's the thing: on fourth and one -- with parallels to last season's goal-line stand against Colin Klein clearly at the ready to describe another failed attempt, in the face of memories of RGIII's repeated self-destruction inside OSU's five yard line only two seasons ago -- we lined up in a stacked formation, leaving no question what we were about to do, and punched it in.
Going for it on fourth down isn't new. Opting for seven over three isn't new. The ability to buckle down, dig in, and power our way forward even when the Snydercats knew exactly what was coming, however? That is new. I know the common outcry amongst those who keep up with Baylor football is that people often mistake us for simply a passing team when, clearly, we are equally dynamic in the running game. I have added my own voice to that chorus on several occasions. That does not, however, change the fact that we are, or at least have been, down to our core, much more a finesse team than one that would line up and run down your throat. The archetypal Baylor highlight contains speed and agility, outrunning or slipping by opposing tacklers, much more so than grinding, lower-your-shoulder, move-the-pile, and scrape-out-those-needed-yards kinds of plays. We have, historically, been the team that gets thrashed by that type of game plan. I still have nightmares of Bell running through gaping holes, play after horrifying play.
Yesterday, however, even for the briefest of moments, when it mattered the absolute most, we were that team. Petty simply would not be denied; our offensive line would not be denied; and the seven points we managed to put on the board were, to my eyes, absolutely necessary to set the right tone. Those initial seven points were, I firmly believe, what caused Snyder to press and chase a bit too much and, ultimately, leave at least nine points on the field at various moments throughout the game.
Which brings me to the next play...
2. The Defense's HUGE fourth down stop on KSU's first drive.
No, the Bears didn't manage to do anything with the ball, once they got it back. Yes, the Snydercats DID eventually manage to even-up the score, after they forced us to punt. No, none of that changes how huge that initial stop was.
True to form, the 'Cats lined up on that first drive and marched fifty-nine yards (forty of which came on the ground), chewing almost five minutes off the clock, and got all the way down inside the ten yard line. Everything about that drive said they should have scored. They had run on us at will and their passing game had shown itself to be effective when it needed to be. If they had leveled the score, they would have essentially started out punch for punch with us and could have sent our defense, clearly already a bit unnerved by the environment, into a tailspin.
The whole drive looked easy. Until the last stand, the Wildcats never even sniffed a third down. Our defense looked surprised to face an offensive line that gave a whole lot better than it got and an effective running game from several different contributors. Add seven points to that debacle and I think you start to see a completely different defense.
It's true, they blew a ton of assignments throughout the game (the commentators never missed an opportunity to point that out). It's true they looked far more vulnerable than anything we've seen so far this year. It's also true, however, that -- on a day filled with those mistakes, against a team that could seemingly run at will -- the Bears surrendered a measly twenty-five points. The fact is, they didn't give up; they kept lining up and fighting on each and every down (that image of Dixon firing up his teammates along the sideline late in the game is not one I'll soon forget); and, they did manage to keep the game in reach for our offense, which seemed to put all the pieces together only in spurts.
That early stop, while not ultimately significant to the box score, was a resounding declaration of the things to come. Last year, the Bears bent a lot and then broke anyway. This year, when the defense had their backs against the wall, they held firm, forcing field goals (including a pivotal, missed one) rather than giving up touchdowns, and even forcing turnovers, escaping without yielding any points at all.
Which takes us to the last play...
3. Ahmad Dixon's game-winning interception.
Okay, so it wasn't the last play of the game; BUT, do you seriously want to argue that, if KSU grinds out another five minute drive that ends in either a field goal or a touchdown, that wouldn't have seriously changed the complexion of the game? That wouldn't have pushed an offense that had already been struggling to press a bit more and open itself up to even more mistakes? Do you really think TGCAB would have been comfortable handing it off to Martin five straight downs, stomping out any remaining upset hopes, two or three yards at a time?
And make no mistake: that play was not all about Dixon. It was a team effort. Our D-line managed a solid pass rush (for what seemed like the first time of the whole game); our DBs managed to hold their coverage, even as Sams scrambled and extended the play; and, yes, Dixon put himself in excellent position, closed to the ball well, and showed fantastic awareness to get his foot down in-bounds as he rocketed toward the sideline.
How many times, last year, did our incredibly potent offense score, leaving us on the edge of our seats, screaming at the TV for just. one. stop? How many times did we watch as the defense was then scorched, surrendering touchdown after touchdown, completely incapable (so it then seemed) of giving our offense even the tiniest bit of help, which was all it really needed?
The thing that seems so amazing to me right now, is that our offense really struggled yesterday. They had a whole collection of infuriating drops, dumb penalties, and mind-numbing turn-overs and, had this been last year, we could have rested assured those would have cost us the game. At the beginning of last year, we needed every, single point the offense could manage. Score less than forty? Chalk it up as a loss. Hell, against WVU they scored sixty-three points and it still wasn't enough.
This year, our offense sputtered to a mere thirty-five points, and we still walked away with a ten-point victory on the road in one of the toughest venues in the country (much less the Big 12).
That's what makes this team special, AND what leaves me not disappointed but thoroughly ecstatic after yesterday's hard-fought win.
What do you think? Were there other plays you would have included in this list? Share them in the comments below!