For Baylor coach Matt Rhule and his players, Sunday afternoon’s announcement that they are headed to the Texas Bowl for the second time in school history was a best case scenario.
The Bears will face Vanderbilt in the Dec. 27 game in Houston before a big Baylor fan base, and Rhule can boost his recruiting in Texas’ biggest city by opening his practices to high school coaches.
Kickoff for the game at NRG Stadium will be at 8 p.m.
“It’s an absolute home run,” Rhule said. “It will be a tremendous opportunity for us to go into Houston and play in front of our family and friends. I know how excited our players are. The older guys are excited to play one of their last games in Houston. To play in front of the high school coaches and possible recruits is big.”
Baylor will play in its eighth bowl game in the last nine years, a streak that began with its first-ever appearance in the 2010 Texas Bowl. The game marked Baylor’s first bowl appearance since 1994, but Illinois dominated Art Briles’ squad, 38-14.
With their 35-24 win over Texas Tech in the Nov. 24 regular season finale, the Bears evened their record at 6-6 (4-5 in the Big 12) to become bowl eligible after finishing 1-11 in Rhule’s debut season in 2017.
But Rhule believes the pivotal point of the season was when the Bears pulled out a 35-31 win over Oklahoma State on Nov. 3 at McLane Stadium.
“I think beating Oklahoma State was a defining moment for the year that gave us three cracks down the stretch to get that sixth win,” Rhule said. “They just won the week before and beat Texas, and for us to battle back the way our guys did was big. I think it is a great lesson for our players.”
The Bears will face a Vanderbilt squad that’s also 6-6 (3-5 in the SEC) and needed to win their last two games against Mississippi and Tennessee to become bowl eligible for the second time in the last three seasons under fifth-year coach Derek Mason.
In their last bowl appearance, the Commodores dropped a 41-17 decision to North Carolina State in the 2016 Independence Bowl.
“I thought it was really important, cool for us to play an SEC team,” Rhule said. “That’s a premiere conference. I thought it’d be really important for us to go get a Power 5 win. The respect I have for Vanderbilt, Coach Mason, they had to win their last two games to get bowl eligible. They went out and earned this, they’re going to be excited to play. We’re playing one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
Senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, the son of New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur, is an NFL prospect who has hit 64 percent of his passes for 2,844 yards and 23 touchdowns with six interceptions this season.
During his four seasons at Vanderbilt, Shurmur has passed for 8,579 yards and 63 touchdowns.
“Shurmur jumped in midway through his freshman year, and grew up fast in a conference not for the faint of heart,” Mason said. “He’s put a little more on his resume and knows how to handle the pressure of being a quarterback in the SEC. He’s played to his strengths and is a pretty prolific play caller in this day and age when quarterbacks get most of the signal calling from the sideline.”
The Commodores feature a balanced attack as Ke’Shawn Vaughn has rushed for 1,001 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging an impressive seven yards per carry. Kalija Lipscomb is the Commodores’ top receiver with 81 catches for 886 yards and nine scores while Jared Pinkney has caught 45 passes for 698 yards and seven scores.
While Vanderbilt’s offense is averaging 397.8 yards and 27.7 points per game, the Commodores’ defense has allowed 419.8 yards and 25.1 points per game. Linebacker Jordan Griffin has recorded a team-high 110 tackles while cornerback Joejuan Williams has made four interceptions.
There is some history between Rhule and Mason. Rhule was in his second year as Temple’s head coach in 2014 when the Owls rolled to a 37-7 win over Vanderbilt in Mason’s first season as the Commodores’ head coach.
“I know Coach Rhule well, he’s a tremendous coach,” Mason said. “I watched their game against Oklahoma State and I was impressed. Looking at their ballgames, what they were able to do and finish the season with a big win over Texas Tech to propel them into this game. His teams are going to fight, they’re resilient and they’re building.”
Rhule said he didn’t know yet if Baylor senior receiver Jalen Hurd will be available for the game due to a knee injury. Hurd is Baylor’s leading receiver with 69 catches for 946 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 209 yards and three scores.
“He got banged up (against Texas Tech) and I told him that he probably shouldn’t play because he has a big NFL future ahead of him,” Rhule said. “He hurt his knee but he wouldn’t come out. He was going to play a lot of tailback, but he couldn’t. He went out there and caught three balls and made some great blocks. It was one of the more selfless acts for this team. With the future he has, he wanted to do everything he could to help us win. I am still waiting to see on how healthy he will be.”
Senior punter Drew Galitz will miss the game after tearing his ACL before the Texas Tech game. He’ll be replaced by either junior kicker Connor Martin or freshman Issac Power, who can play and not burn his redshirt under the new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in up to four games during the season without sacrificing their redshirt.
“This will be an opportunity for Issac over the next few weeks to see if he can be the starting punter this game and hopefully it will give him some momentum into the next season,” Rhule said.