SAN DIEGO — Baylor arrived in Southern California looking like strangers in a strange land.
Playing their first bowl game outside of Texas in 21 years, the Bears’ Holiday Bowl matchup against UCLA had ominous warning signs written all over it. This was UCLA’s home turf in its time zone with its fans ready to celebrate a win.
But late Thursday night, it was Baylor coach Art Briles hoisting the Holiday Bowl trophy.
It was Holiday Bowl offensive MVP Lache Seastrunk at the microphone thanking the Baylor seniors for all they’ve done for the program and Chris McAllister smiling broadly after winning the defensive MVP.
“Baylor Nation is alive and well in Cal-i-for-ni-a,” Briles yelled to the Baylor faithful that hung around for the postgame ceremony.
The Bears couldn’t have looked more comfortable and dominating in their first bowl game in California as they romped to a 49-26 win over No. 17 UCLA before 55,507 fans on a cold night at Qualcomm Stadium.
Their offense ran up and down the field to build a 35-10 halftime lead while the defense smothered UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley by collecting a season-high six sacks.
Nobody was more elated than quarterback Nick Florence, who put the final stamp on a brilliant senior year by hitting 10 of 13 passes for 188 yards while also running for a touchdown.
“I’ve always been told that winning a bowl game your senior year is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Florence said. “I get to remember that the rest of my life. It’s enjoyable, it’s memorable. Man, I love this team, and I’d do anything for them.”
After building their 25-point first-half lead, the Bears (8-5) focused on grinding down the clock as Florence threw just two passes in the second half. Baylor was content to pound away on the ground, as Lache Seastrunk finished with 138 yards and Glasco Martin piled up 98 for a rushing attack that amassed 306 yards.
“I can’t tell you enough about how the O-line has been doing its job,” Seastrunk said. “It started in the film room. I was with my linemen after hours breaking down film, and I felt like that just pushed us over the tipping point. I feel like that was a big factor, and not to mention Nick (Florence) taking pressure off me as well as the receivers.”
After facing high-tempo Big 12 offenses all season, Baylor’s defense was prepared for a UCLA offense that ranked among the best in the Pac-12 behind the passing of Hundley and the running of Johnathan Franklin, who came into the game with 1,700 yards.
With Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett mixing blitzes with straight rushes, Hundley faced tremendous pressure all night. Besides getting sacked six times, several of his passes were tipped at the line of scrimmage by Baylor defenders.
Franklin never got untracked as he was bottled up for 34 yards rushing on 14 carries. With UCLA’s rushing attack finishing with a meager 33 yards on 28 attempts, Hundley was forced to throw a great deal, as he hit 26 of 50 passes for 329 yards and three scores.
“We have an aggressive coach who likes to blitz and try to get a lot of pressure,” said McAllister, who collected two sacks. “Going into the game, we knew we had to pressure their quarterback and stop the running back. They were a great opponent. But we had a good game plan and were able to execute it.”
Baylor’s defense was at its best on third-down conversions, as UCLA made just one of 17. The Bruins had very little success sustaining drives as they only had to move 21 and 35 yards for their first two touchdowns following Baylor fumbles. Their last touchdown came on the final play of the game when Hundley hit Logan Sweet for 34 yards.
Baylor’s defensive line was physical and aggressive all night. It dominated a Bruins’ offensive line that lost starting center Jake Brendel and left tackle Torian White to first-half injuries.
“We felt like for us to have an opportunity to win the game we had to create an edge,” Briles said. “We tried to be as good as we could up front on both sides of the ball. Our defensive rotation kept our guys fresh and our offensive line has been great all year. We did a good job containing the run which made them throw the ball quite bit.”
Baylor’s first-half touchdowns came fast and furiously.
Martin scored the game’s first touchdown when he drove into the end zone standing for 4 yards midway through the first quarter. Baylor took a 14-0 lead when it ended an 84-yard drive with Florence’s 8-yard bullet to Antwan Goodley for a touchdown.
For Baylor’s next score, Florence found Tevin Reese streaking down the right sideline for 55 yards early in the second quarter. Then the Bears went back to the ground as Martin stormed up the middle for a 26-yard touchdown and Seastrunk broke loose for a 43-yard score in the closing minutes of the first half.
“Everybody locked up on their man, and I saw the Red Sea part and I took off,” Seastrunk said.
With the defense dominating UCLA, the Bears finished off their impressive win with second-half touchdowns by Martin and Florence on 1-yard runs. UCLA coach Jim Mora’s team fell to 9-5 with its third straight loss, but he knew Baylor whipped the Bruins up front.
“They played physical, aggressive and well,” Mora said. “We lost two of our (offensive line) starters in the first half. So I think Baylor recognized we were down and they pinned their ears back and came after us. But I would never take anything away from them because they played outstanding up front.”
Now, the Bears have won consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1985-86 after winning last year’s Alamo Bowl over Washington. They finished the season as one of the hottest teams in America with four straight wins that included victories over then-No. 1 BCS ranked Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
Briles’ program is on a roll, and Thursday night’s resounding win over UCLA was the latest jewel.
“This means a lot because of the history of this bowl game,” Briles said. “It gave us a chance of getting on a national stage with a university that’s nationally respected.
“Fortunately, we were able to do our job and get out of here with a great win in a great atmosphere in a great bowl game.”