By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer, Video by Nate Smith | LTVN Executive Producer
Baylor history was made on New Year’s Day as No. 7 Baylor football broke the school record with their 12th win of the season to win the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1957 beating No. 8 University of Mississippi 21-7 at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.
With the victory, Baylor is now 2-1 in the Sugar Bowl and 14-12 in bowl games overall. The Bears also set the school record for most single season wins over ranked teams with five. In the first 109 years of the program the Bears had one 10-win season, but now have six in the last 11 seasons. Senior linebacker Terrel Bernard said this squad will leave behind a legacy of being one of Baylor’s best and doing things the right way.
“Doing things the way they are supposed to be done,” Bernard said. “Not necessarily what you say, but how you do it … I think that’s the cool thing about it. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, doing what you are supposed to do, day in and day out. Eventually your time will come. And it’s just crazy to see the growth and everything that’s happened to get to this point.”
An opportunistic Baylor defense made it a long night for Ole Miss. The Bears held the No. 4 ranked offense to just seven points with three interceptions and a monstrous 10 sacks. Junior cornerback Al Walcott’s 96-yard pick six broke a 77-year old Sugar Bowl record for the longest interception return, and Baylor’s double-digit sacks was also a Sugar Bowl record. Bernard was awarded Most Valuable Player of the game, after recording 17 tackles and two sacks.
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin said it was a “perfect storm,” from Baylor’s defense.
“Ten sacks, four turnovers, three times in the red zone early on,” Kiffin said. “Not only did we not get any points, we actually gave them seven with the pick six. So your defense can’t play lights out forever. Eventually, the ball broke and we gave up big plays.”
Despite offensive struggles, the Bears finished with 279 yards on the ground, 177 of those coming from senior running back Abram Smith. The former linebacker broke Terrance Ganaway’s school record for most rushing yards in a single season, finishing with 1,606 yards. Smith gave all credit to his offensive linemen and coaches.
“All the credit goes to the men up front,” Smith said. “Without them, I can’t really do anything. I’m just thankful for them and coach [Jeff] Grimes and coach [Eric] Mateos offering me the opportunity just to be back in the backfield.”
The Rebels won the toss and elected to receive first, but the Bears almost immediately stole momentum. On the second play of the game, senior cornerback JT Woods soared for an interception near midfield. On the ensuing drive, Baylor decided to go for it on fourth down on their own 46 but came up short, turning the ball over on downs.
The teams then traded punts before a rollercoaster drive from the Rebels. Ole Miss marched down the field after a fourth down conversion and multiple first downs. However, Baylor’s defense responded with consecutive pass break ups and big-time sacks. On 3rd-and-20, Rebel junior quarterback Matt Corral was sacked once again suffering a right leg injury that forced him to exit the game. On the next play, sophomore kicker Cale Nation missed a 49-yard field goal attempt, keeping the game scoreless.
Baylor’s offense once again went for it on fourth and short but couldn’t convert, turning the ball over on downs. However, the explosive Bears defense took matters into their own hands. With Ole Miss in the red zone and getting dangerously close to scoring. backup freshman quarterback Luke Altmyer’s pass was tipped by sophomore linebacker Matt Jones and intercepted by Walcott who took it 96 yards to the house for the only score of the half to give Baylor a 7-0 lead after the extra point
At halftime, Baylor led 7-0, shutting out Ole Miss despite the Rebels having the ball in Bears territory three times. The Bears had 140 yards of offense, 106 of those coming from Smith, and only 15 yards passing.
The third quarter wasn’t the best for the Bears. On Ole Miss’ second drive, Altmyer found senior wide receiver Braylon Sanders for a 37-yard touchdown pass that tied it at 7-7. Altmyer went 6-8 for 101 yards in the third quarter alone.
Baylor’s offense was stagnant outside of one promising drive that was stopped after Junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon’s underthrown deep ball intended for senior wide receiver Tyquan Thornton was picked off in the end zone. Bohanon was just 2-8 for 17 yards in the third quarter.
The Rebels looked to have found their rhythm on the following possession, getting all the way down to Baylor’s 17. However, Nation missed a 35-yard field goal wide right, making the drive unsuccessful.
The next possession started with a few first downs from Baylor’s running backs, but was highlighted by a jet sweep to freshman wide receiver Monaray Baldwin who went 48-yards untouched for the Bear’s first offensive touchdown as they took a 14-7 lead.
Smith said he was happy for his Baldwin’s first touchdown because he’s seen how hard he works.
“I was excited when I seen him [Baldwin],” Smith said. “When I got done with my fake, I looked over and I see someone really small running full speed. I’m like — I see it in practice. He’s been working on that a bunch, so just seeing him do that. I was so happy for him, his first actual collegiate touchdown. I remember running full speed to the end zone just to go celebrate with him.”
The defense used the momentum to come up big once again. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Bernard recorded a sack for a loss of 10. That was followed by Woods’ second interception of the game which he returned to Ole Miss’ 15 yard line. Baylor quickly punched it in for a 2-yard touchdown on a quick screen pass to Thornton, widening the gap to 21-7 and seal the win.
Aranda said there was a big change for the team from last season and is very appreciative for the journey he has had so far with this program.
“The change from last year to this year was really kind of breaking all of that down and earning trust and believing in each other and being selfless,” Aranda said. “When you get to that, you get to a team. This was a great team win. We’ve had some team wins throughout the year, and so appreciative of the team. I’m a better person for it. So I’m proud, man. I’m a little saddened because I know that this part is over, but I’m humbled and appreciative.”
Bernard said this win shows the growth of the team and shows just how hard everyone involved worked to get here.
“Since the day we got to New Orleans, I think everybody had front-side focus on keeping the main thing the main thing, and coming here and winning this game,” Bernard said. “Like coach Aranda said, doing something that Baylor has never done before, winning 12 games, I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. These past two and a half, three weeks of preparing for this game, we’ve had some of our best practices, and put together a really good plan. Really excited to see how we executed and came out here and did what we were supposed to do.”