John Werner: Next rung of ladder even tougher for Briles

Baylor coach Art Briles said after the Texas Bowl, “It’s a bad feeling to have your face turned red.”

Baylor coach Art Briles tried to look at the big picture, but couldn’t get past the meltdown that had just unfolded before his eyes.

After watching Illinois dismantle his football team in the Texas Bowl, he had a difficult time relishing the Bears’ first winning season in 15 years.

“It’s hard right now,” Briles said. “It really is. I think the big picture will take care of itself over the next six months. But any time you don’t get the result that’s desired, it doesn’t feel good. It’s a bad feeling to have your face turned red.”

None of the Baylor players described Wednesday night’s 38-14 loss to Illinois as embarrassing, but they were clearly disappointed in the way they played.

The practices leading up to Baylor’s first bowl game in 16 years had been so crisp and the players were excited to be there. The last thing they expected was to get waylaid by an Illinois team that was essentially playing a road game since most of the 68,211 fans at Houston’s Reliant Stadium were wearing green and gold.

Instead of a riveting finish, the Bears only extended their late-season woes.

Following a 7-2 start to become bowl-eligible, the Bears lost their last four games to Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Illinois. That would be a tough stretch for any team in the country, but the Bears expected to play a lot better.

After opening up a 30-21 halftime lead against Texas A&M on Nov. 13 at Floyd Casey Stadium, the Bears were outscored 112-38 in the last 10 quarters of the season.

Even after limping to the finish line, this 7-6 season should be viewed as a major success for Briles’ program. Achieving a winning record in the Big 12 is no small thing for a program that had been down as long as Baylor’s.

But the next step in the evolution of Briles’ program could be just as hard.

The Bears will have to beat Top 25 teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M to even get in the conversation for the Big 12 championship. When Baylor reaches a bowl, it will need to seize the opportunity and win.

With quarterback Robert Griffin leading an experienced offense, there’s no reason the Bears shouldn’t blow up the scoreboard again next season. The Bears will have to find a featured back to replace Jay Finley and a left tackle to replace all-Big 12 choice Danny Watkins, but Briles will find guys to step in.

“I’m going to hold those (returning) guys accountable, and I’m going to hold myself accountable,” Griffin said. “We’ll come out next year ready to go.”

But the Bears will have to be much more consistent offensively to beat good teams. They can’t afford the letdowns they had in the second half against the Aggies or the turnovers that helped turn the Oklahoma and Illinois games into blowouts.

The defense will have to find a lot more playmakers to improve dramatically. Young players like defensive end Tevin Elliott, linebacker Chris McAllister and cornerback Chance Casey have great potential, but it’s going to take strong performances from them and many other players to stop the bleeding.

As Illinois showed, the Bears need to become a much more physical team to take the next step. The Fighting Illini dominated the Bears on both sides of the line as the defense constantly pressured Griffin, while the offense opened gaping holes for Mikel Leshoure.

Leshoure, who finished with 184 yards rushing and three touchdowns, had so many blockers in front of him on some plays that they looked like a reincarnation of the Green Bay Packers’ power sweeps of the 1960s.

With the Big 12 trimming to 10 teams next season, Baylor’s schedule is going to get tougher. Instead of playing eight conference games, the Bears will play nine. Baylor’s nonconference schedule will be no piece of cake with a season-opening date against TCU at Floyd Casey Stadium.

So there are a lot of challenges ahead for Briles’ program. While the Bears made a lot of progress this season, Briles knows it’s going to take a ton of work for his program to climb to greater heights.

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