By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Though it faced a 28-point deficit midway through the third quarter, Baylor football wasn’t ready to call it quits.
The Bears scored 29 unanswered second-half points and defeated the UCF Knights 36-35 Saturday evening at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Redshirt sophomore kicker Isaiah Hankins drilled the 25-yard game-winning boot to complete the largest comeback in program history.
Hankins said he was praying for peace during the whole game, and “the Lord was very gracious today” to help him nail the game-winner.
“Today, I don’t even know what I was thinking about, but I was peaceful,” Hankins said. “I knew my teammates would set me up for success, so I’m glad we were able to execute it.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Blake Shapen said he hasn’t been a part of a game quite like this one.
“Nothing like that,” Shapen said. “What was the lead? (35-7). So, 28 [points]. No, I’ve never been a part of a 28-point comeback. It was pretty amazing to be a part of.”
The Knights (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first 6:17 of action. Baylor trailed by as much as 35-7 with 8:08 left in the third quarter, but a 30-yard field goal by Hankins nearly five minutes later and 23 fourth-quarter points lifted the Bears to victory. Saturday marked the first meeting between Baylor and UCF as Big 12 foes. The last matchup came when the Knights won 52-42 in the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The Bears (2-3, 1-1 Big 12) had their backs against the wall on Saturday and were on the cusp of falling to an FBS school for the eighth-straight time. Now, Baylor is back in the win column with a chance to spark a run moving forward. Two of the Bears’ losses have come against AP Top-10 teams, and all three setbacks came at the hands of programs that owned a combined 11-1 record through four games.
Junior wide receiver Monaray Baldwin said the team never lost sight of a potential win, even with the steep second-half deficit.
“[It’s about] just knowing my teammates have my back and I have their back,” Baldwin said. “I was saying it in the first quarter, we’re still in this. As long as we stick together, we can do anything.”
True freshman cornerback Caden Jenkins made two plays that allowed Baylor to have a shot at a comeback. Jenkins intercepted one of UCF redshirt sophomore quarterback Timmy McClain’s passes late in the third quarter to set up the Bears’ third scoring drive of the game. Freshman running back Dawson Pendergrass punched it home from six yards out to make it 35-18, thanks to a successful two-point conversion.
Baylor scored another TD and two-point conversion before Jenkins continued leaving his imprint on the game. McClain and the Knights marched all the way down near the red zone before Jenkins scooped up a fumble and returned it 72 yards for a TD. The improbable score left UCF with just a 35-33 lead after Hankins’ made PAT.
The Bears also saw the return of Shapen, who suited up for the first time since suffering a sprained MCL during a 42-31 week one loss to Texas State. Shapen was day-to-day early in the week, but a report on Friday indicated that he would be ready to play on Saturday.
Shapen helped lead the comeback, although there was a rough start to the contest. The 2022 Honorable Mention All-Big 12 selection completed 21 of 34 passes for 293 passing yards and one passing TD. Shapen also punched in a 2-yard rushing TD in the first quarter — Baylor’s only points of the first half.
Over 50% of Shapen’s passing yardage went to Baldwin, who exploded for 150 receiving yards and one TD on seven catches. Baldwin had a long grab of 43 yards three plays into the fourth quarter. No other receiver on the team had more than 26 yards.
Head coach Dave Aranda said he was thrilled to see Baldwin come back into his element and that Baylor fans should be proud of Shapen for his efforts on Saturday.
Sophomore running back Richard Reese also had a bounce-back week, totaling 100 yards on 16 carries — both season highs. Junior tailback Dominic Richardson was the next leading rusher with 37 yards on 10 attempts.
Redshirt senior linebacker Matt Jones joined Jenkins in making his presence known, as Jones recorded a team-leading eight tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss.
After failing to score a TD in six red zone trips last week, the Bears went five for seven in that category against the Knights. Shapen said that bounce-back effort had to do with the self-belief that the team carried, even in the midst of a meltdown during the first half.
The Knights held a 28-7 lead at halftime while being zero for two on third-down conversions.
“I never stopped believing,” Shapen said. “I believed we were going to win this game before the game and in the middle of the game, whatever, when we were down 28 points.”
Baylor will return home to host Texas Tech for another night game, this one set for 7 p.m. on Saturday at McLane Stadium. The Big 12 matchup will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Aranda said he was “proud of the resilience” his squad put on display and that this win could start some serious momentum moving forward.
“From the very beginning of the week, we talked about believing and trusting in the team — believing in the guy to your right and left,” Aranda said. “And I think that showed up in the fourth quarter. Happy to see that. I think this is something we can start with and run with.”