By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Baylor’s matchup with No. 3 Oklahoma Saturday night was right off the page of a William Shakespeare tragedy.
The Sooners, a 28.5-point favorite led by Heisman hopeful senior quarterback Baker Mayfield, were supposed to steal the show. Instead, it was the underdog Bears led by sophomore quarterback Zach Smith who played the lead as the tragic hero, in what was only Smith’s second start of the season.
Smith completed 33 of 50 passes for a career-high 463 yards, with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, but fumbled on Baylor’s potential game-tying drive in the game’s final two minutes as Oklahoma escaped with a 49-41 road win.
After the game, Smith said that the team’s effort showed a glimpse of just how good they can be when they play up to their potential.
“I think everybody can see we lost week one here in the same stadium and we came back and had the ball to get down and score,” Smith said. “[We] couldn’t really get it done, but that was an exhilarating game. It really shows us who we are and how great we can be.”
Smith really utilized his arm to step up his game, and he needed to as Baylor failed to gain much traction in the running attack.
The Bears welcomed back their leading rusher from 2016, junior running back Terrence Williams, but he was mostly swallowed up by the Sooners’ defense. Williams finished with 26 yards on 11 carries and was mostly a non-factor.
Freshman running back John Lovett showed several signs of life, bursting out of the backfield for a 19-yard gain as the Bears found their rhythm early in the third quarter. This was Lovett’s highlight, as Oklahoma held him to 44 yards on 13 carries, forcing Smith to attack the Sooners with his arm.
Smith gave Baylor a herculean effort as he broke free from the shadow of his counterpart in Mayfield.
After Mayfield put Oklahoma up 14-0 in the first, following touchdown passes of 24 yards to redshirt junior tight end Mark Andrews and 52 yards to senior fullback Dimitri Flowers, Smith settled into the offense.
First, Smith found sophomore wide receiver Denzel Mims for a 19-yard touchdown, their first of three touchdown connections in the game.
Following back-to-back rushing touchdowns from the Sooners which gave Oklahoma a 28-10 lead, Smith and Mims connected again, this time for a 71-yard score as Mims broke away from the secondary down the left sideline to cut the score to 28-17 heading into halftime.
On the second play of the second half, Smith dialed up the big pass play, this time with a 72-yard strike to junior wide receiver Chris Platt. Smith then hit wide receiver Tony Nicholson for the two-point conversion to draw within 28-25.
Next, it was the Baylor defenses turn to step up. The following two Sooner possessions ended in a punt and a fumble, both resulting in field goals from Baylor sophomore kicker Conner Martin, the second of which came from 46 yards out and put the Bears in front 31-28.
Just as Smith strapped on his game face to guide Baylor back from an early 28-10 lead, Mayfield refused to play the role of understudy.
First, Mayfield hit redshirt senior wide receiver Jeff Badet on a wheel route up the Baylor sideline for the 48-yard touchdown strike, putting the Sooners back in front 35-31.
Then he turned the ball over to the two-headed running attack in sophomore Abdul Adams and freshman Trey Sermon, who rushed for 164 and 138 yards respectively while scoring three touchdowns.
After a Baylor punt, Sermon broke through the Baylor linebackers and raced to the end zone on 34-yard score. On the next possession, he broke free down the sideline for a 60-yard gain, tip-toeing the sideline in the process and two plays later, walked in untouched from nine yards out, putting Oklahoma up 49-31 with less than nine minutes to play.
Mayfield said the Sooner’s mindset didn’t waiver once Baylor took the lead, instead they stuck to the game plan and executed it.
“That’s just the mentality we have,” Mayfield said. “You’ve got to stay positive and do your job. Trust in the plan and the plays that are called. If you go out there and execute it, good things will happen. You just keep firing.”
With the game slipping away, Smith once again re-emerged in the spotlight, orchestrating an eight play 57-yard drive that resulted in a field goal by Martin. He also led an 11 play, 85-yard drive where Smith scrambled on fourth down and, like an old west gunslinger, fired a bullet to Mims in the back of the end zone, making it 49-41 with 1:41 left on the clock.
On the ensuing onside kick attempt, Mims kept Baylor alive by knocking the ball away from Oklahoma and getting Smith one last shot.
But like the Shakespeare’s tragic heroes Romeo and Hamlet, Smith’s final prayer went unanswered.
On first down, Smith was flushed out of the pocket and forced to throw the ball away. On second down, it was dropped on the outside. On third down, Smith couldn’t avoid the pressure and fumbled it back to Oklahoma, ending Baylor’s upset tale.
Baylor finished with 523 yards, 463 in the air. Smith targeted Mims 19 times, coming up with 11 completions for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore wide receivers Tony Nicholson, Pooh Stricklin and Platt all had at least five receptions and 70 yards receiving.
Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, after being challenged in practice throughout the week, said the receivers gave a tremendous effort to Smith and the offense.
“We really challenged the receivers this week and I thought they came through,” Rhule said. “Denzel just jumped up and made some tremendous plays. I’d like to get the run game going a little bit more, but I think you just saw a true championship effort from a lot of guys. The quarterback found a way to put the ball where he needed to be with those guys.”
For Oklahoma, Mayfield completed 13 of 19 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns, while the Sooners pounded out 342 yards on the ground against Baylor’s defense.
Although deeply proud of his team’s effort, Rhule made it clear that he doesn’t buy into the theory of moral victories.
“People are going to pat them on the back and say, ‘Hey, that was a great game.’ Not good enough. And not for Baylor to have moral victories,” Rhule said. “I don’t care if we’re young. I don’t care if we’re hurt. I don’t care. We’re going to continue to get better and go play a great Kansas State team next week and see if we can’t compete against them at a high level.”
Baylor falls to 0-4 on the season for the first time since 1999 and 0-1 in Big 12 play. The Bears will hit the road in search of their first win at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Kansas State (2-1) at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium in Manhattan, Kan.