A lot has happened since the last time Baylor football took the field.
Since the Bears’ 24-21 loss at West Virginia on Dec. 3, Baylor hired former Temple head coach Matt Rhule to replace acting head coach Jim Grobe after the season. Rhule has been active in completing his staff and attempting to bring in the next class of Baylor football. On Dec. 20, senior running back Shock Linwood announced that he was skipping the bowl game to focus on preparing for the NFL’s April draft.
Grobe said all of that is now in the rearview mirror. The only focus now is on beating Boise State.
“They shouldn’t sneak up on us, they’re really good football players,” said acting head coach Jim Grobe. “They’ve had a good tradition for a number of years now. I’m hoping our guys can play some really good football.”
Boise State enters the game with a 10-2 overall record and a 6-2 record in the Mountain West Conference.
“They’re a good team. They can do a lot of things well,” said senior linebacker Aiavion Edwards. “It’s always fun in bowl games to play teams outside your conference. This is a big one with all the success they’ve had the last few years. It’s going to something fun.”
Coach Grobe knows that if the Bears are going to pull the upset win, they are going to have to match the Broncos’ physicality in the trenches.
“They’re the most physical team we’ve played this year I think. They’re probably one of the more dangerous teams running the football. But I think their quarterback is very athletic and throws the ball really well,” Grobe said. “I think they’re a little more of a power football team, lots of tight ends, h-backs, shifts and motions. They’re unique, a little bit different. They present some of the same problems for us that Kansas State did but in a different way using different personnel groups to get you out of position and make a lot different people defend the run.”
Baylor’s defense will be challenged as they encounter the Broncos’ rushing attack in the form of junior running back Jeremy McNichols.
“They’ve got a really good running back. He’s a strength back,” said junior nickel back Travon Blanchard. “He does a good job falling forward and getting extra yards. Their quarterback makes some good throws, and I think one of their receivers is the schools’ all-time leading receiver. It’s going to be fun.”
McNichols averaged more than five yards per carry and 138 yards per game in 2016. He has run for 1,663 yards and 23 touchdowns on 295 carries.
Joining McNichols in the backfield and providing the aerial attack for Boise State is First Team All-Mountain West sophomore Brett Rypien. The Spokane, WA, product has thrown for 3,341 yards and 23 touchdowns this season.
Rypien’s two top targets on the outside that the Baylor secondary will hone in is senior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck and junior Cedrick Wilson. Sperbeck has caught 72 passes for 1,193 yards and nine touchdowns while Wilson has caught 50 balls for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Boise State boasts five players that were voted either first or second team All-Mountain West for the 2016 season. Much like its offense, the Boise State defense is just as physical.
“They’ve very athletic. Much like their offense, they’re very physical up front,” Grobe said. “They run to the football and are very talented. They mix things up a bit. They do a nice job playing base defense but they beat you up pretty good. It’s a very talented group.”
With the extra time off to prepare for Boise State, Baylor has had an opportunity to focus on getting healthy. According to Grobe, this might be the most healthy they have been all season.
However, Baylor will still be without senior quarterback Seth Russell, who was lost for the season in a loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 12. Freshman quarterback Zach Smith enters his fourth game as the starter.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true, not often does that happen,” Smith said. “I’m really excited to come out and get a good start and have fun. It’s going to be a blast.”
Smith has thrown for 1, 151 yards and 10 touchdowns in the Bears’ final three games of the regular season.
Baylor will both have both redshirt freshman wide receivers Pooh Stricklin and Blake Lynch available to complement junior KD Cannon, sophomore Ishmael Zamora and senior Lynx Hawthorne in the passing attack. Cannon, however leads the group of receivers with 989 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Smith will be without senior Linwood, who will skip the bowl game, but should have a healthy running back tandem in sophomore Terence Williams and redshirt freshman JaMychal Hasty. Williams ran for 945 yards and 11 touchdowns while Hasty ran for 591 yards and two touchdowns this season.
After an up and down season that saw Baylor start off 6-0 before dropping its final six games, both the players and Grobe are hoping to put it all behind them by ending the season on a high note with a win over Boise State.
“It’s big for him and the rest of the staff. They’ve done a great job since they’ve been here. It’s big for them and for us seniors. We’re excited for the opportunity to finish out on a win,” Edwards said. “We’re hoping we can get this bowl win and go out as winners.”
For Grobe, it will be his final game coaching, as he will head back into retirement. He said his focus is sending out his seniors with a win and building a positive foundation for the underclassmen who return for coach Rhule.
“It would be fun to go out with a win no question. The thing for me it’s going to be sad because I’ve kind of fallen in love with these players. We have so many great kids. I’m going to miss these guys, especially these underclassmen,” Grobe said. “We’ve got a lot of good kids that are going to be around for a while that are going to do some great things for Matt and his staff. So as much as I would like to win personally, I would much rather win for the players and see these guys go away with a win.”
Baylor and Boise State will meet for the first time in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl at 9:15 p.m. CT at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. The game will be aired on ESPN.