GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the aftermath of a 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, it was hard for Baylor to put in perspective how much it had accomplished this season.
The disappointment of the moment was too blinding.
Coming in as heavy favorites over the No. 15 Knights, the No. 6 Bears fell into a quick two-touchdown hole and played catch-up all night. It certainly wasn’t the finish the Bears envisioned in their first BCS bowl after winning the Big 12 championship.
“We caught a football team that was hot,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “They played extremely well early and got into us. We could never turn it around when it needed turning. I’m just disappointed for all the people that took the time and effort to come out and support us because we had a great crowd. It’s disappointing for us and them.”
While the Bears took the loss hard, Briles was quick to point out in his postgame locker room talk that they should be proud of their season. The Bears not only won their first Big 12 title, they set a school record with their 11-2 record and set a high standard for future seasons.
“Like I told them, would we rather not have won the Big 12 championship and not be in this atmosphere and not be in this game?” Briles said. “I’d rather take the chance, put our heart and soul out in front of America and see what happens. It didn’t happen the way we wanted it to happen.”
After playing tremendous defense most of the season, the Bears allowed 556 yards as the Knights had great success passing and running. Blake Bortles showed why NFL scouts are excited about his future as he hit 20 of 31 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-4, 230-pound junior also showed his versatility by rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Not enough pressure
Though the Bears put good pressure on Bortles at times, they didn’t sack him. Eddie Lackey and Demetri Goodson intercepted passes for the Bears, but Bortles was on target most of the time.
“We brought good pressure quite a bit, but they did a good job protecting and he got the ball out of his hand,” Briles said. “He was accurate and made some good throws. They could have beaten a lot of teams.”
Playing physical football from the start, the Knights began the game by establishing the run. Storm Johnson had a big night as he rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns.
“We didn’t execute on defense,” Lackey said. “When you don’t execute and get to the point of attack, you don’t get things done and can’t play good defense.”
But the Bears didn’t just get beaten physically by the Knights, they hurt themselves with a season-high 17 penalties for 135 yards. The Bears went into the game as the most heavily penalized team in the Big 12, and it caught up with them against the Knights.
Making bad decisions
“I cannot remember the last time we had that many penalties in a game, without question,” Briles said. “It’s certainly hard to overcome. I think we were fresh and I think we played very physical. I’m not sure we played as intelligently as we should and have.”
While Baylor’s offense rolled up 550 yards, it had some missed opportunities. The biggest came in the second quarter after Jamal Palmer stripped the ball from Johnson and Sam Holl recovered at UCF’s 19.
But Baylor couldn’t take advantage of the turnover as Petty threw an interception to Brandon Alexander in the end zone. Trailing 14-13, the Bears failed to take their first lead.
“Honestly, it was just a lack of execution on my part,” Petty said. “We ran that play probably 10 times this year and it worked every time. That play is one you can’t force, and I did it. Unfortunately, that was the turning point in the game.”
Returning from a dislocated wrist that he suffered Nov. 7, senior receiver Tevin Reese finished with five catches for 43 yards. But the Bears couldn’t spring the speedy Reese deep. Antwan Goodley was limited to four catches for 20 yards before missing most of the second half with an ankle injury.
Petty put up solid numbers as he passed for 356 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for three scores. Lache Seastrunk finished with 117 yards rushing, but the Bears couldn’t produce enough offense to overcome the Knights.
After a breakthrough season, Petty was disappointed the seniors didn’t cap their careers with a win.
“This is probably one of the best groups of seniors we’ve had,” said Petty, a junior who is planning to return for his senior year. “It’s so disappointing, especially for myself, to know that things could have gone different to send them out with a win. But at the same time, there’s going to be a new group of seniors next year. As for myself being a leader in that group, I have to make sure we come back prepared and ready to go.”
Looking to 2014
Briles is also excited about the team he’ll return next season. Though the Bears lose seven senior defensive starters, Baylor has plenty of young, athletic talent coming up. Seastrunk will decide whether he’ll return for his senior year or declare for the NFL draft, but there’s a great deal of offensive talent returning.
Following their championship season, the Bears want to keep shooting for bigger goals as the NCAA moves from the BCS championship format to a four-team playoff system for the national championship next season.
“We’ve got a good nucleus coming back,” Briles said. “We have guys that have played a lot of snaps and have done a good job. We want to become a bowl eligible team, win the conference championship and to get ranked as high as we can, and try to get in the playoff system. That’s our three goals we’ll attack next year.”