By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor
No. 9 Baylor football will battle it out against No. 5 Oklahoma State University one last time this season at 11 a.m. on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington for the Big 12 Championship game. It’s the Bears’ second appearance on the conference’s biggest stage in the past three years.
“We’re thankful that God gave us the opportunity to go out there and play in that game again,” senior safety Jalen Pitre said. “We understand what it takes to win, and we’re trying to put in that work in practice and go out and execute on Saturday. We’re thankful to be in the game and we’re going out there with the hopes of playing as fast as we can and coming out with the win.”
Pitre said that having players, such as himself, that were a part of the 2019 championship team will be a bonus, as they can help the others focus on the task at hand.
“I feel like when you go into these big games, some people can be a little starstruck and can fall into the hype and the fame of the game,” Pitre said. “Understanding that it is another football game for us and the maturity of those guys is definitely going to be a pro for us when Saturday comes because we have been there and we’ve seen the things that the game offers. We want to go in there like it’s another Saturday and compete until the game is over.”
After going 2-7 last season, not many people believed Baylor had what it took to turn things around as drastically as they have. However, senior wide receiver Drew Estrada said from the moment he transferred from Dartmouth College, everybody in the locker room believed this could happen.
“Obviously, with the season that they had last year, a lot of outsiders didn’t really think that we’d be having the season that we’re having right now,” Estrada said. “Internally we believed in it, but now that it’s kind of coming to fruition, it’s something really special and we have something really special to do on Saturday.”
Pitre said a big reason for the change from 2-7 to 10-2 is the work the team put in during the offseason and players taking accountability for the results of last year.
“Us understanding that a lot of those games last year was up to us and that we kind of lost a lot of those games,” Pitre said on what sparked the turnaround. “Understanding that we were going to get a lot of talent back, a lot of those guys with experience … having that confidence and understanding that we can go in [to] each game and win kind of helped us propel to the 10-win season that we just had.”
Head coach Dave Aranda said he is looking forward to the challenge of going up against Big 12 Coach of the Year Mike Gundy. Gundy led OSU to a conference best 11-1 record during the regular season, losing only to Iowa State University.
“So much respect for coach Gundy and that team, very talented,” Aranda said. “They play with an edge, they play as a team. I think you can see the connection with them, you can see the culture there. On both sides of it, athletically and team-wise, they’re elite. And so what a great challenge for us.”
Saturday will be the second time this season the Bears face off against the Cowboys, as OSU handed Baylor their first lost of the season on Oct. 2 in Stillwater, Okla., defeating them 24-14. It was a poor offensive showing for the Bears, as they never seemed to find their rhythm on that side of the ball. Despite that, they still found themselves with a chance to take the lead down 17-14 late in the fourth, but ultimately came up short.
“That was our first real road environment [and] pressure creates abnormal behavior,” Aranda said. “We were in spots where the jersey number said it was so and so, but we weren’t acting like that person and coaching wise, same thing. There was a lot of unforced errors in that game, things that, unfortunately, we could control that we didn’t do a very good job with. Credit to Oklahoma State, we played Baylor and we played them that night.”
Even though the defense was able to force three turnovers in that game, Pitre said there’s a lot of things they could’ve done better, which they hope to improve upon in the rematch.
“We feel like there’s a lot of things we could have [done] better,” Pitre said. “First off, stopping the run, imposing our will. Understanding that if we do that, it makes the offense kind of one dimensional and makes them want to pass [which] allows the game to be called a lot differently. So we understand that if we stop the run, it could be hard for that offense to get rolling. With that, we understand that we got to make plays when the ball is in the air.”
One thing that will help with stopping the run is having senior linebacker Terrel Bernard who missed their first matchup due to injury.
“Terrel is one of those guys that when he’s just in the huddle and he’s in it, there’s just an added confidence,” Aranda said. “Because of his maturity and his resilience and his preparation, you just feel like he’s a coach on the field … I think [when] you go into a game like this, you want Terrel on your side. You look at someone that has poured his heart out for this place and has been a stalwart on different ways of getting stuff done. He’s been just a role model on how to accept change and how to play through change in all of it. I want him to be successful, and I’m excited that he’s playing in this game.”
Bernard isn’t the only difference for the Bears since that loss. Estrada said the loss caused the team to mature and take a new approach to their preparation for games the rest of the season.
“You always learn a lot from losses and kind of figure out what kind of team you are after a loss and how you’re going to rebound,” Estrada said. “What we learned from that [loss] is that our week of preparation is most important leading up to the game. I don’t think we necessarily had the best week of practice that week. And from there on out, we kind of focused and realized you kind of have to earn the right to play well on Saturday … You’re not gonna be able to just show up on Saturday and get it done.”
A big storyline to watch heading into the game is whether or not junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon will be on the field, as he is still recovering from a hamstring injury he suffered two weeks ago in Baylor’s game against Kansas State University. Redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Shapen has stepped up in his absence, and if Bohanon is unable to go, Aranda and the rest of the squad have complete faith that Shapen has what it takes.
“He’s just poised back there, you can see it. Even though he hasn’t had a lot of experience in the game, he just seems confident back there and like he’s been doing it for a while,” Estrada said. “We fully support him at every other position, and I think he’s proven it on the field that he can handle the job just fine.”
If Baylor is able to pull off the upset and get revenge against OSU, Pitre said the victory will send a message to the rest of the country.
“It will prove that hard work pays off,” Pitre said. “This team has been through a lot. We’ve seen a lot and we understand that we’ve worked hard throughout it all. If we come up with a win on Saturday, it’ll be big to show a lot of people around us and even guys all around the country that if you don’t quit, you will reap the benefits that you sow.”