ORLANDO, Fla. — Preparing for the Russell Athletic Bowl, Art Briles called Baylor’s situation inspirational.
Most people would have called it dire.
It sounded like coachspeak when Briles expressed supreme confidence in a team that was missing its top two quarterbacks, Biletnikoff Award winning receiver, 1,000-yard running back and starting right offensive tackle because of injuries.
But Briles believed in the players who were healthy and available — and they believed in themselves.
No. 18 Baylor’s 49-38 victory over No. 10 North Carolina on a warm Florida Tuesday night might have been Briles’ best coaching job in eight seasons at the university.
Briles and his son, Kendal, Baylor’s offensive coordinator, reached back a hundred years or so to install a single-wing attack that the Tar Heels simply couldn’t stop. For one night, Wide Receiver U became Wildcat U.
If a team uses the Wildcat formation these days, it’s usually in goal-line situations or as a diversion for its regular offense. But with quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham both unavailable because of injuries suffered earlier this year, the Wildcat became Baylor’s go-to offense against the Tar Heels.
It threw North Carolina completely off guard. Head coach Larry Fedora said so in the postgame press conference.
“You’ve got to give their staff credit,” Fedora said. “They knew that 13 (Chris Johnson) was very limited as far as the way you could throw the ball. So they put a plan together with the Wildcat and used every form of quarterback style in the running game you could possibly run. And they did a great job with it.”
Johnny Jefferson, Devin Chafin, Terence Williams and Lynx Hawthorne all took snaps in the Wildcat to help the Bears pile up a bowl record 645 yards rushing. That’s not just a Russell Athletic Bowl record. It’s the most rushing yards in any FBS bowl ever.
Jefferson was the star and deservedly won the game’s MVP honor. Carrying 23 times, Jefferson amassed a school-record 299 yards rushing, with three touchdowns, including an electrifying 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. His remarkable performance put him at exactly 1,000 yards for the season.
In Baylor’s 23-17 loss to Texas in the regular-season finale, Baylor went to the Wildcat in the second half after Johnson went out with a first-quarter concussion. Jefferson was outstanding as he rushed for 158 yards, but his fumble late in the game was costly and he wanted to make up for it against the Tar Heels.
“The big thing for me was the last game we played I had a big mistake,” Jefferson said. “And I promised the guys that I was going to come out and give it my all. God blessed me and they blocked amazing. You get in and take advantage of your opportunity.”
Jefferson got plenty of help from his teammates as Chafin rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. They became the most productive rushing duo in bowl history with 460 yards.
Williams added 97 yards rushing and two scores, while Hawthorne collected 63 yards and a touchdown. The Bears ran the ball a mind boggling 84 times and averaged 7.7 yards per carry against a good North Carolina defense.
They did it with 1,000-yard rusher Shock Linwood missing the game due to a broken ankle.
Make no mistake about it. The running backs had the time of their lives getting their number called all night out of the Wildcat formation.
“All week I was excited because it’s a direct snap — that’s a running back’s dream,” Chafin said. “Just get the ball and see it all and attack. Our O-line played very physical and we just fed off them. They made it easy for us and we did what we needed to do.
“It all comes down to who wants it more at the end of the day and who is the more physical team.”
Baylor alternated its first- and second-team offensive lines and kept them fresh throughout the game. The Bears ran 102 plays and amassed 756 offensive yards to wear down North Carolina’s defense.
“The No. 2 O-line was awesome, not just the No. 1 O-line,” Chafin said. “That just shows the depth of our team. We have depth everywhere and great players everywhere who are able to make plays.”
With All-American Corey Coleman missing his final game for the Bears following hernia surgery, Baylor’s wide receiving corps wasn’t featured like it usually is.
But Johnson and the Baylor receivers were OK with that. The Bears put together a highly effective game plan and nailed down a big bowl win against a favored North Carolina team.
Kendal Briles was asked if the Wildcat might become a staple of Baylor’s offensive plans in the future. He wasn’t ready to commit to that. After all, both Russell and Stidham will be back next year, along with a deep group of receivers.
But the Wildcat is one more option among many that defenses will have to think about when they face the Bears.
“What we have been has been pretty good,” Briles said. “Obviously, we’ve got a QB that could really execute the offense. But with the capability of being able to do that and getting back out with the receivers being able to do some things, it does create some problems with the defense having to prepare for that.”
The Russell Athletic Bowl victory was much needed after the Bears lost in the Fiesta Bowl and Cotton Bowl in their last two postseason appearances. It will give the Bears a shot of momentum heading into the offseason.
Staring into the face of desperation, it will be remembered as the night when Art Briles pulled off one of his finest coaching jobs.