By Krista Pirtle
The Baylor football team made its statement with a 59-24 victory over the SMU Mustangs Sunday evening.
“We felt like we had to come out and see what we were,” Baylor head coach Art Briles said. “Just like everybody else, we weren’t sure. We felt like we knew what we had. We felt like we knew we had a determined, eager, anxious football team that wanted to prove themselves.”
A crowd of 43,514 gathered in Floyd Casey Stadium to see what the post-Griffin era will bring, notching the No. 4 opening day crowd in Floyd Casey history.
“I thought that we had an outstanding crowd,” Briles said. “We felt all the energy from the crowd. For a Sunday afternoon, Labor Day weekend game, I thought our student support was fabulous and a big advantage for us. I thought that our guys did a great job tonight of using the home-field advantage. We’re getting where when you play at Floyd Casey Stadium, it’s a tough ticket for opponents.”
Heisman trophy winner Robert Griffin III sent senior quarterback Nick Florence an encouraging text message before the game, and Florence went out and threw 341 yards and four touchdowns.
“He just told me to be myself,” Florence said. “I learned a lot from him. He’s done a lot for our program. Just because he leaves, doesn’t mean anything different happens here.”
Florence was 21 of 30, a 70 percent passing rate that Briles said was low for him.
He led the Bears offensive attack for a total of 613 yards.
The ground game was not as downhill as it was last season with Terrance Ganaway, but senior running back Jarred Salubi broke through the middle and took his speed to the perimeter of the field.
“It’s just gives another dynamic,” Salubi said. “I’m not saying I’m a bounce-it-out-every-time kind of guy, but if it’s there, I’ll take it. Terrance [Ganaway] was more, he stayed where he’s comfortable. I feel like I can do both. I feel like I can run inside and outside, so it just depends on what the defense gives me.”
Salubi finished with 91 total yards and a touchdown.
SMU’s offensive structure is very similar to Baylor’s with a run- and-gun mentality.
Senior running back Zach Line finished the game with 135 yards.
As the game progressed, the Baylor defense got Line’s number, tackling him either on or near the line of scrimmage.
“They just started running the ball a lot more in the second quarter, so I just knew my fits and where I had to be,” sophomore linebacker Bryce Hager said.
Hager, in his first game, led Baylor on the defensive side of the ball with 14 tackles.
The Bears’ defense changed up its usual look from a four front to a three front, allowing the linebackers a better chance to see their holes and fits.
It also moved safety Sam Holl up to a linebacker type slot, placing him in prime territory to a record four tackles, two pass break-ups, a quarterback hurry and an interception returned for two yards.
“That’s a good defense for us,” Holl said. “It puts me in position and it puts more defensive backs on the field for coverage wise. We’re looking for more from that. I’m very comfortable there. Like I said, it puts me into a position to make more plays and it puts more speed on the field.”
Baylor’s offense started out on the gridiron, taking 3:42 to find the end zone in 10 plays covering 75 yards, capitalizing on a 6-yard pass from Florence to senior wide receiver Lanear Sampson.
The Mustangs fought back, making it to the Baylor 26-yard line before missing a 43-yard field goal.
In its next possession, Baylor took 3:11 to score, this time off a 5-yard pass to senior tight end Jordan Najvar.
SMU finally found the scoreboard off a 22-yard field goal to make the score 14-3.
Baylor’s next possession showcased Florence’s ability to punt with a 54-yard kick.
For around 12 minutes in the second half, the action lulled as both teams exchanged punts back and forth before the momentum picked up in a major way for the Baylor Bears.
The Mustangs lined up at the Baylor 9-yard line for second-and-goal, when senior safety Mike Hicks broke up a pass and junior linebacker Eddie Lackey stepped in for the interception, returning the ball 23 yards.
“That was a huge interception,” Holl said. “They had a chance to put it in there down in the red zone and we needed to make a good play. Mike [Hicks] made a good play breaking it up and Eddie [Lackey] catching the deflection, that was great for us. It gave us momentum and the offense took it and scored pretty quickly.”
In just 39 seconds, a 50-yard pass to Tevin Reese added points to the green and gold regime.
First half play ended off a 44-yard field goal by junior kicker Aaron Jones.
“I saw a lot of guys making plays out on the field: a lot of swarming, a lot of effort and a tough mentality attitude,” Briles said. “We may have bent a little bit, but we did not break. Three points at the half. You can check scoreboards across the nation and see that there were not a lot of teams with only three points at the half. Especially a team like SMU because they are a good football team. They came off an 8-5 bowl-winning season. I thought that Coach (Phil) Bennett, the staff and our players certainly responded and did well.”
SMU began the second half with the football before Hicks recovered a fumble forced by KJ Morton and ran it 66 yards for the touchdown.
Baylor’s next two drives ended with touchdowns off a 9-yard rush by Salubi and a 36-yard pass to Sampson. The Mustangs found the end zone after that, capitalizing off a 33-yard rush by Line with a 42-yard touchdown pass, making the score 45-10.
Florence didn’t see the field at all in the fourth quarter, but Baylor still scored twice off a junior running back Glasco Martin 1-yard rush and a 37-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Bryce Petty to senior wide receiver from Michigan, Darryl Stonum.
SMU found the end zone a pair of times, as well, in the final quarter of play, but the effort could not erase the giant lead the Bears acquired.
“I think we’re a tough football team, without a question,” Briles said. “I think we’re a team that knows how to win, that believes they’re going to win and can certainly play in spurts of dynamic qualities on both sides of the ball. It is hard to maintain that for a full 60 minutes, but when you have the ability to explode on either side, then you have a chance to have a really good football team. I think that as the season goes on, we’ll grow and learn, but I was certainly proud of their effort tonight because we had a lot of respect for SMU. This was a big, big game for us. We are really happy that they rose up to the challenge and took care of business.”