By Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
After an off-season full of changes, the Baylor Bears football team will take the field at McLane Stadium for the first time under acting head coach Jim Grobe. The Bears, ranked 23rd in the AP Poll and 21st in the Amway Coaches Poll, will look to take a step in the right direction with a win against Southland Conference foe,Northwestern State.
After replacing Art Briles in May and dealing with a slew of off-the-field issues, including the sexual assault allegations brought forth against former members of the football team and the recent suspensions of sophomore wide receiver Ishmael Zamora and junior safety Chance Waz, Grobe is excited about finally getting down to football.
“It is good to be in game week, and it’s going to be exciting to play somebody for real, to have a little bit of competition,” Grobe said. “I feel pretty good about our football team. I think I’ve gotten to know our team and our coaches pretty well over the past few weeks. I feel good about where we are right now. I wouldn’t start over again. I think we’re about where we need to be.”
Grobe will be coaching his first game in three years since his departure from Wake Forest University and knows the growing pains that come with taking over a well-established program, but he is fully embracing those challenges and is ready to get back to the comfort of the headset and sidelines.
“It’s just good to get to play football. That’s what we do,” Grobe said. “I really enjoy all the things that go with coaching, and we haven’t been able to do a lot of that. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about things that have to be talked about, no question. We had to deal with a lot of serious issues, but now it’s kind of more light-hearted because we’re getting ready to play a game. I’ve learned a lot from our players; I’ve learned a lot from our coaches, but I’m expecting to learn more Friday night.”
The players are just as excited to be getting back to business tonight.
“Oh my gosh, it has been a long wait. I cannot wait,” said senior wide receiver Lynx Hawthorne. “I’ve been ready for this weekend for like 25, 30 weekends now. It’s finally here.”
Despite being the overwhelming favorite against the Demons, Baylor will certainly look to its senior leaders for help settling in.
“You definitely always have to game plan for everybody. You have to treat them as if it’s a national championship type of game,” said senior quarterback Seth Russell. “If you don’t, if you try to overlook some team, that’s when they come up and upset you. We definitely don’t want that.”
Russell hopes to get his senior season off to a great start after his Heisman-caliber junior season ended abruptly after sustaining a neck injury against Iowa State.
“It’s exciting to get back out there, especially with the guys and how hard they’ve been working as a unit. It’s back to football,” Russell said.
Russell is confident that he is healthy and will not be hampered by lingering effects from offseason surgery.
“I’m back to 110 percent,” Russell said. “I’m excited and ready to go.”
The Bears’ defense will be crucial to their success this season, especially heading into Big 12 play, so Northwestern State provides an ample opportunity to dig in and establish themselves defensively.
“I feel really good about our athleticism,” Grobe said. “I know maybe in the past we had some guys who were a little bigger than the guys we’re playing with right now, but I’m really excited about our athleticism.”
The Demons will have their work cut out for them trying to slow down Baylor’s potent offense, especially in its own backyard. In games at McLane Stadium last season, Russell threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for two more, while senior running back Shock Linwood, who is a mere 204 yards away from breaking Walter Abercrombie’s school rushing record, ran for 677 yards and six touchdowns.
Northwestern State and head coach Jay Thomas hope to continue to ride the wave of success they had at the end of their 2015 campaign. They enter the game having won four of their final six contests, but they are 0-4 against Baylor, including a 70-6 defeat at McLane Stadium in 2014. The contest will also serve as a homecoming for sophomore cornerback Justin Barnes, son of Baylor’s defensive backs coach Carlton Buckels, and junior transfer linebacker Chrishard Buhl.
The game is set to kick off at 6:30 p.m.