PHOENIX — As the 2016 Baylor football season drew to a close with a 31-12 win against the Boise State Broncos in the Cactus Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix, 10 of Baylor’s 12 senior players took the field as Bears for the last time.
“It’s got to be very rewarding for our guys,” head coach Jim Grobe said. “The things that we’ve gone through this season have maybe been hardest on the seniors. And so for our seniors to hang in there the way they have, show the leadership they’ve shown, and to actually finish it off — I think it just tells you what kind of character our kids have.”
Both senior quarterback Seth Russell and senior running back Shock Linwood were missing from the bowl game due to injuries in the Nov. 12 loss to Oklahoma and a decision to focus on the 2017 NFL draft, respectively.
Russell, as well as senior center Kyle Fuller, were selected as 2016 Senior Bowl invitees.
Senior safety Orion Stewart and senior linebacker Aiavion Edwards both made multiple successful tackles during the game, and Stewart had a key interception in the second quarter with 10 minutes remaining, which was his sixth interception of the season and the 12th of his career.
Stewart had a career-high two tackles for loss, one sack and recovered his third career fumble.
Senior cornerback Ryan Reid had one pass broken-up, which moved Reid into a tie for eighth in career passes broken-up at Baylor with 28.
“I think that [a win] is super important for us and for them [the seniors] and the school,” said freshman quarterback Zach Smith. “And we really wanted to send them out on a win. I think it really pick ups the morale of the team and for them … translating it into next season and for the rest of their careers.”
Edwards, who had his third double-digit tackle game of the season and sixth of his career with 11 tackles, had mixed feelings going into the Cactus Bowl about being the last time he suited up in green and gold.
“It’s kind of hard because it is my last college game,” Edwards said. “But I’m excited to hopefully finish out on a high note. Go out one more time with the guys that are here and the guys that I’ve worked with for so many years. We’re excited and we’ve prepared well.”
For seniors that have been in the program since their days as redshirt freshmen, this is the fifth bowl game that they will have played in, and the seventh-straight bowl appearance for the Bears.
Although the last six bowl games were under former head coach Art Briles, Grobe believed that the seniors have persevered through many ups and downs in the last year alone, and had his sights set on victory going into the game.
“We wanted to be here. Our guys wanted to play again,” Grobe said. “And I think that came more than anything from our senior class.”
However, for those players that are not seniors this year, including Smith, a new era of Baylor football under soon-to-be head coach Matt Rhule is about to begin.
Some of the team veterans, including Edwards, had complete faith in Smith heading into the bowl, and believed that he was indeed able to act as starting quarterback in the Cactus Bowl as a true freshman.
“We try to do our best to help him and I think that he’s actually very prepared for it,” Edwards said. “He’s a guy that’s ready to accept the challenge as well. We’ve all been working hard and he’s done a great job in the games he’s played and we have full confidence in him.”
Regardless of the results of the game and the future of Baylor football, Fuller said heading into the Cactus Bowl that the Bears’ win last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl was a notable success, and said that they planned on treating the Cactus Bowl the same way as they have previous bowls.
“It was an accomplishment, definitely an accomplishment. One of those deals where we went into it ready to play and that’s how we’re going to treat this one, We’re ready to play,” Fuller said. “We’ve been practicing very hard. And it’s been a long, long trip getting ready for this game. It would mean a lot, just going through my really five years here at Baylor. We’ve been through a lot, and it would always be a blessing to come out with a win.”