Baylor is slippery, even when wet.
With their NCAA-leading offense hitting a second-half lull, the No. 2-ranked Bears leaned heavily on a ball-hawking defense in plodding past Iowa State, 45-27, on a soggy homecoming Saturday at McLane Stadium.
Even while winning, Baylor (7-0 overall, 4-0 in the Big 12) suffered a painful loss. Junior quarterback Seth Russell broke a bone in his neck while carrying the ball in the fourth quarter. Russell left the game after taking the hit, and the injury was revealed in a postgame X-ray and CT scan. He will see a specialist next week, but his timetable to return is uncertain.
Should Russell miss Baylor’s next game Nov. 5 at Kansas State, true freshman Jarrett Stidham will start in his place. Chris Johnson, a former quarterback who moved to receiver at the start of the season, would serve as the No. 2 QB. Baylor has been relatively fortunate with injuries this year, but losing Russell -— who led the country in passing efficiency — would obviously sting.
“You’re always concerned, 100 percent,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “First and foremost, about his health and then football. He’s a tough guy, and it’s hard to see tough guys get hurt.”
The poncho-wearing crowd of 45,512 may not have recognized this Baylor team at times, especially when the Bears came up empty in scoring on six straight possessions from the end of the first half and into the fourth quarter. But ultimately Baylor achieved Briles’ stated goal of surviving, advancing and preserving their undefeated record.
“It was a great win, a tough win. Really, I think a win we needed,” Briles said. “You hate to say that, because you’d like for everything to be like it’s been. But it’s not going to be that way. That’s not reality. I thought our guys did a great job of just kind of sustaining and maintaining. Not panicking, taking care of business.”
Amid a steady rain, Baylor built a seemingly commanding 35-0 lead through the first 25 minutes. But Iowa State (2-5, 1-3), which was playing a top-five NCAA offense for the third straight week, didn’t go away quietly. The Cyclones capitalized on the Bears’ third-quarter sluggishness to pull to within 35-20 following Joel Lanning’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Wesley with 7:47 to play.
“I just don’t think we had the energy, I could feel it coming out at halftime, that we had starting the game. And that’s my fault,” Briles said. “When you look at things from a reality standpoint, if you’re up 35-7, (the players) can add. We felt like we were in pretty good shape, but in this league you’re really never not.”
The mountain still proved too steep for Iowa State to climb. Baylor ended its second-half scoring drought with Chris Callahan’s 34-yard field goal with 5:31 to play. Then on Iowa State’s ensuing possession, the Bear defense forced its fourth turnover of the day, as Jamal Palmer stripped ISU’s Lanning of the ball and K.J. Smith fell on it for the recovery at the Cyclone 23-yard line.
The Bears cashed in on the timely takeaway about two minutes later, as backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham scrambled and found Corey Coleman open in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown that pushed the Baylor lead to 45-20.
“We came into this with the goal of zero turnovers,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “To win a game like this, you can’t give them the ball back. They make a living out of three-and-outs on defense and takeaways and scoring fast. The next thing you know you’re buried.”
Russell wasn’t always spot-on delivering the wet football, but he still passed for 197 yards and two touchdowns. He directed the Bears to a 73-yard scoring drive on their first possession of the game, dropping in a pretty 36-yard touchdown toss to Coleman, the nation’s leader in TD catches entering the day.
Coleman also displayed his willingness to throw a block on Baylor’s second score, helping set the edge for a 37-yard touchdown scamper by Russell. The quarterback made one Iowa State defender miss at the line of scrimmage before scooting into the open field, then downshifted the final 10 yards to coast into the end zone.
After Shock Linwood squirted free for a 17-yard touchdown run on the Bears’ next possession, the lead was 21-0 and it looked like Baylor might set a new NCAA record with its sixth straight game of 60 or more points. The Bears had reached that mark in each of their last five games, tying the record set by the 2008 Oklahoma team.
Linwood turned in another mighty productive effort, rushing for a game-high 171 yards and a touchdown. His 6-yard TD catch at the 11:42 mark of the second quarter pushed the Baylor lead to 28-0. Then after a leaping interception from BU corner Ryan Reid gave the Bears the ball right back, they stretched the gap to 35-0 thanks to some powerful, up-the-gut running, capped off by Devin Chafin’s 2-yard TD run.
Yet after a 35-point first half, the tide shifted in the third quarter. Baylor’s offense didn’t score in the third quarter, beset by an outbreak of penalties and off-target passes. The Bears punted on all three of their third-quarter possessions, a rare sight for the NCAA’s top-ranked offense.
“(We felt) a little bit of frustration because we know what we can do,” Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango said. “We have to be able to clear that and not let frustration bog us down even more. It’s tough to do sometimes. You start to get a little drive going and then a penalty happens and puts you behind the sticks. It’s sometimes what we have to deal with. The leadership on the team addressed it and we’ll move on.”
Baylor’s defense showed a lot of feistiness, coming up with a pair of interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two sacks and forcing six punts. Those stops and takeaways played a significant factor as the game slowed to a more grind-it-out affair for the Bears.
“That’s the difference in the ballgame,” Briles said. “We had a turnover, led to six points for them. But that’s always going to be the deciding factor. You can be the smartest guy in the room, but if you’re fumbling and throwing interceptions, you’re going to lose. So, that’s where it all starts — turnovers, field position and momentum.”
Mike Warren, the leading rusher among FBS freshmen entering the game, combined with fellow frosh Joshua Thomas to give Iowa State a potent 1-2 running attack. Warren finished with 28 carries for 145 yards, while Thomas chipped in 77 yards and a score.
Lanning’s 2-yard TD pass to Quenton Brundage with 4:29 accounted for all of the third-quarter scoring. That pair later hooked up again in the final minute of the game, with Brundage running through a couple of would-be tackle attempts by the Bears en route to a 29-yard score.
It was certainly an uneven performance for the Bears entering their bye week prior to the K-State game. But Briles couldn’t complain about the end result of a homecoming win.
“If somebody would have said, ‘Coach, would you take 7-0 going into the bye week?’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, put me in on that’” Briles said. “So yeah, our guys, they’ve done what we’ve needed them to do. We understand that there’s other things out there. That’s why people showed up today, because you’re never really sure what’s going to happen.
“You’d like to think it’s going to happen that way, but you never know. We’ve got a big task in front of us at K-State, and then we’ll move on from there.”