By Adam Gibson | Sports Writer
Baylor football is headed to its eighth bowl game in the last nine years as it travels to the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl at 8 p.m. on Dec. 27 in Houston to face Vanderbilt.
Head coach Matt Rhule lead the Bears to a 7-17 record over his first two years as Baylor football’s head coach and has turned the program from a one-win team into a bowl contender. Rhule said going to a bowl game for the seniors is something the class deserves and is a great way to end their time with the team before graduating.
“I can’t understand everything that they’ve been through,” Rhule said. “To come out where it’s a positive story and all the tweets today are happy, all the guys are fired up and excited, they did that. And they earned it. They did that through hard work. If you learn a lesson coming out of our program, it’s that hard work isn’t punishment. If you want something in life you have to earn it. For me, it’s just like a step. We got to 6-6. We got to a bowl game.”
Facing an SEC team is never easy and that is exactly what the Bears will have to prepare for going into the next couple weeks of bowl practice. Vanderbilt is coming off winning three out of their four previous games, ending its season with a 38-13 win over Tennessee. Vanderbilt senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for a season high three touchdowns and 367 yards, completing 31 of his 35 passes for a completion percentage of 88.6 percent, all season highs. With all three touchdowns going to different receivers, Shurmur knows how to spread the ball around.
Now that Rhule and the Bears know who the opponent will be, he said in the end it doesn’t matter who they face because it is something out of their control and they knew they were going to have to get ready to face a solid team either way.
“The respect I have for Vanderbilt [and] coach [Derek] Mason, they had to win their last two games to get bowl eligible. They went out and earned this. They’re going to be excited to play,” Rhule said. “We’re playing one of the best quarterbacks in the country. They know how to play defense. I think all those things will be really good for our team. We need to go out and defend a really good quarterback. We need to see if we can play better up front versus a really good SEC defensive line.”
Baylor is dealing with a couple players who are out with injury beginning with senior punter Drew Galitz who tore his ACL and will be out for the remainder of the year. Junior kicker Connor Martin will fill in to take over some of the duties in place of Galitz on special teams. In the Texas Tech game, senior wide receiver Jalen Hurd banged up his knee and despite Rhule telling him he “shouldn’t play because he has a big NFL future ahead”, he still competed in the game. His status for the bowl game will not be officially determined until the coaches see how he looks in practice.
Senior offensive lineman Blake Blackmar has been on three teams, including this season, that made bowl eligibility. He had to go through last year only winning one game and came into this season knowing he might not be able to go to another bowl game. Now that the Bears are playing Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl, Blackmar said this shows just how far the team has come and how encouraging this is for the program going into the upcoming years.
“We were all able to see the things we did last year and see how close we were to … winning some games and doing a lot of good things. And we just never quite sealed the deal,” Blackmar said. “We’ve made a ton of progress and big strides. To be able to seal the deal and go to a bowl game now — and, you know, it is really a turning point for the team and, hopefully, for how we’re going to lead Baylor going forward.”
During the practices, Rhule and the coaching staff are going to try to get as much preparation and confidence instilled in the players for them to be ready for Dec. 27. Playing players at different positions is going to be a main focus for the team.
The coaches know this is the last game for the seniors before some aim to make it to the NFL and will also be putting them in those different positions to best make that happen. One thing Rhule did on the first day of bowl practice was get the younger players to understand how competitive the game will be and how hard they need to practice in order to be successful.
“There are recruits sitting around and you would think that I would be shaking hands, but no, I want them to know even though you are not playing, I want you to understand that they need to feel the pressure and I want them to produce and perform and I was proud they responded and they did … When you go out to be the quarterback, when you go out to be the left tackle, there is one standard we want you to play,” Rhule said.