Bears claw their way to victory in dramatic Big 12 Championship finish

By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor, Video by Joe Pratt | Broadcast Reporter

No. 9 Baylor football etched their name into the history books Saturday with a 21-16 win over No. 5 Oklahoma State University in the Big 12 Championship game in Arlington. Despite the Bears leading wire-wire, it was a game that will be remembered by the Baylor community for decades to come as it took a goal line stand at the end of the fourth quarter to give the Bears their first Big 12 title game victory and third conference championship.

“It has been a real treasure for me just to see the growth of our team off the field and how that relates to on the field so that we can win those hard-to-win games,” head coach Dave Aranda said. “I think today was an example of it. But there’s been so many. I think the off-the-field battle of this is how we believe, this is how we think, this is how we do these things, I think, really led to this because you are unified and there’s no — the inside stuff that maybe you’re kind of hiding or pretending has to come out. I appreciate all those guys in the next room for doing that. I think it led to this.”

For the veterans such as senior linebacker Terrell Bernard that were part of the 2019 team that made an appearance in the Big 12 Championship game and were also around for the losing seasons, the win means a little bit more.

“Man, it means everything,” Bernard said. “I’ve been sitting in there just thinking [about] the past five years and what a grind it’s been, how fun it’s been and everything that we’ve been through, the ups, the downs and everything in between, man. It’s been worth it. This moment here is something they can never take away. We worked so hard to get here, and I’m glad it’s finally being seen.”

Aranda said it’s the players like Bernard that stayed through the tough times to get to this moment is who he’s the most happy for.

“For the guys that stayed, it’s just way — it’s very strong, and it means a lot to me,” Aranda said. “For the staff that came, I think from the outside, I’m sure it looked really bad, and so for them to come — I think of those guys. I think of the opportunities for the vets that came back. I think of the opportunities for our coaches. So I’m happy for them.”

Prior to the kickoff, Aranda announced on ESPN College Gameday that redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Shapen would get the start in place of junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon who is still dealing with a hamstring injury. Aranda said Shapen’s confidence and the way he approaches everything let him know that Shapen was ready for the challenge.

“His ability to, regardless of the situation, whatever is asked of him, whether it’s go win this game, this conference championship, or go win this game on the road … I think his personality is such that he sets his mind to it and he does it, and stuff doesn’t seep in,” Aranda said. “He won’t let it affect him, and I think that’s way strong. I think that’s uncommon.”

Aranda also said Shapen’s toughness and lack of fear that sets him apart.

“It happened here again today, but there’s been multiple games to where a play will break down and Blake will escape through a B-gap or through a C-gap,” Aranda said. “I could see it from just the sideline. The boy closes his eyes and just runs straight ahead. I’m going, ‘Blake, no. No, it helps to see, man.’ But he’ll turn, his eyes will shut, and he will just run full speed. So I know it means a whole lot to him, and I know that there’s no fear in him.”

Shapen didn’t disappoint, earning the Most Outstanding Player award after finishing 23-of-28, passing for 180 yards and three touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 171.5. Despite his performance, Shapen said Bohanon deserves just as much credit.

“It feels great, something you dream about when you’re a kid growing up,” Shapen said. “Gerry has carried this team all the way to this point, and my job was just to finish it out, and I’m so proud of him. Sometimes I’m thinking about like just all this glory or whatever it is, but Gerry should get it just as much as I’m getting right now. I’m so proud for the whole team.”

The Bear’s defensive unit had a big day as well, coming up with a Big 12 Championship game record four interceptions.

“I think coming in, part of it’s scheme, part of it is how we practice,” Bernard said. “We attack the ball every single day, and we were getting pressure on the quarterback, forcing him to make kind of contested throws and try to fit things into tight spaces, and we were in the right place at the right time sometimes, came up with it, and I think that changed the game.”

It wasn’t just the way they forced turnovers that made Baylor’s defense look so impressive. On multiple occasions the Bears dialed up the intensity near the goal line to prevent OSU touchdowns causing potential seven-point drives to end in three.

“We preach stopping teams on the goal line and making them kick field goals,” Senior safety Jairon McVea said. “Anytime we can hold someone to a field goal down in the red zone, we take that as a win on the defense. It’s a huge game plan thing for us, and we went out and executed it.”

Senior running back Trestan Ebner produced two big plays, one through the air and one on the ground, to help kickstart the opening Baylor drive. However while nearing the red zone, Ebner fumbled the ball on a carry, resulting in a Baylor turnover.

Baylor’s defense couldn’t get off the field on the ensuing possession, letting OSU convert on their first three third down situations. The Bears tightened things up in the red zone, holding the Cowboys to a 23-yard field goal attempt from senior kicker Tanner Brown, which gave OSU the first points of the game at 3-0.

Baylor was forced to punt on their next offensive outing, going three-and-out, yet it didn’t take long for them to get back out on the field, as the Heartbreak kid, senior safety JT Woods, came up with a huge interception. Woods picked off a pass from redshirt junior quarterback Spencer Sanders, returning it all the way to OSU’s 11-yard line to give the Bears some much needed energy. Two plays later, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes dialed up a play-action call, allowing Shapen to find junior tight end Ben Sims alone in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown reception, giving the Bears a 7-3 lead.

The defense came up big again on the next OSU drive, as sophomore linebacker Matt Jones launched into the air to pick off another pass from Sanders, giving Baylor back the ball near midfield. The offense was able to cash in once again as the Bears went on a 3-play, 37-yard drive capped off by a 4-yard touchdown lob from Shapen to senior wide receiver Drew Estrada to make it a 14-3 advantage.

Midway through the second quarter the Bears were on the move again, but things got dicey near the end zone as Shapen attempted to get rid of the ball to avoid taking a sack. Baylor caught a break as it was ruled a forward pass rather than a fumble. However, an intentional grounding penalty was called, moving them back 15 yards. The penalty didn’t seem to matter, as Shapen connected with Tyquan Thornton for a 13-yard score just two plays later to make it 21-3.

OSU found some success following the Baylor score as Sanders went to senior wide receiver Tay Martin multiple times to help move the ball down the field. The Bears brought pressure near the goal line to limit OSU to another field goal attempt from 23 yards, which cut the lead to 21-6.

Baylor got the opportunity to put points on the board one last time before the halftime break, however freshman kicker Isaiah Hankins’ 39-yard field goal attempt was blocked, keeping the score at 21-6.

Shapen was the star of the show heading into the intermission, going 17-of-21 for 151 yards and three touchdowns. Shapen was a perfect 17-17 before throwing his first incompletion on a deep shot to senior wide receiver R.J. Sneed with 25 seconds left in the second quarter. His 17 straight completions were the most in a Big 12 Championship game and an AT&T Stadium record. Shapen said it felt great to get out to such a hot start, as he was just trying to keep the offense in rhythm.

“It was awesome. I mean, this is something you dream about as a little kid growing up,” Shapen said. “We wouldn’t be in this position without Gerry and the things that he’s done for this team moving forward. My job was just to replace him and try not to lose a beat, so that was the main thing.”

Baylor kept the intensity to open the second half as junior defensive lineman Brayden Utley delivered a crushing hit on Sanders, forcing a bad pass that was picked off by McVea. The Bears weren’t able to capitalize on the change of possession, failing to convert on a 4th-and-inches in their own territory. OSU took advantage of the great field position, scoring their first touchdown of the game on a 4-yard rush from sophomore running back Dominic Richardson to cut Baylor’s lead to 21-13.

Toward the end of the third quarter, Baylor got its fourth interception of the contest. Utley got the pick on a tip ball drill after McVea hit-sticked the intended receiver to pop the ball in the air, igniting the Baylor crowd. A missed field goal from Hankins, wide left from 39 yards out, prevented the Bears from extending their lead.

The struggles continued for Baylor’s special teams with Ebner muffing a recovery for his second fumble of the game after the Bears forced an OSU punt. Baylor’s goal line defense stepped up in a major way once again, causing the Cowboys to settle for their third field goal of the game making it 21-16.

It was up to the defense to seal the deal as OSU took over with 3:21 left on the clock and no timeouts after a 61-yard punt from junior punter Issac Power pinned them back on their own 10-yard line. After marching 89 yards on what looked to be the game-winning drive, McVea made the play of the season on a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. With under 30 seconds to go, OSU redshirt senior running back Dezmon Jackson took the handoff and bounced to the outside looking to win the game, but McVea was able to chase him down, tackling him before he could reach the pylon.

Redshirt senior running back Desmond Jackson reaching for the pylon while being tackled by senior safety Jairon McVea in the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 4 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Josh Wilson | Photographer
Redshirt senior running back Desmond Jackson reaching for the pylon while being tackled by senior safety Jairon McVea in the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 4 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Josh Wilson | Photographer

“I saw the running back with the ball, and what I thought, I just said, ‘I’ve got to run this guy down,’” McVea said. “Tried my best to do that, and it worked out, so it was good … everyone dreams of that, game on the line, it’s them to make the play. Yeah, for sure it was nice for it to fall on me, and it was nice that I could make a play for my teammates and coaches.”

Aranda said it felt good that it was McVea with the chance to make the play because of how he always does things the right way, no matter the situation.

“I think we all have people like that in our lives that no matter what it is, he’s going to do it right and going to do it with a smile on his face, and it’s just always there,” Aranda said. “I think sometimes you overlook people like that, and just when you see the ball rolling out and you see him [McVea] in pursuit, you feel good that it was him.”

Shapen said while on the sideline, he knew the defense would be able to pull it out.

“I didn’t even watch it, actually. My head was down praying,” Shapen said. “When we came down to that situation, I knew that we had some really tough guys on the defensive side, and they’ve played their butts off all year, so I had major confidence in them, and so when they made that stop, that wasn’t anything new. I knew that was coming.”

While the Bears are extremely happy to get over the hump and win a conference title, they don’t want this to be the end. Shapen said the Bears want to build off of the win and be a contender for the crown every season moving forward

“I think this can’t be something that just stops here,” Shapen said. “I think we can build on this and be contenders every single year after this if we just keep putting our heads down and keep working hard.”