PHOENIX, Ariz. – After enduring one of the most difficult seasons imaginable, Baylor could have easily mailed it in for the Cactus Bowl and ended the season with its seventh straight loss.
Instead, the Bears played some of their most inspired, daring football of the season and beat a Boise State team that specializes in winning bowl games.
Freshman Zach Smith passed for 375 yards while KD Cannon caught two touchdown passes as the Bears rocked the Broncos, 31-12, before 33,328 fans Tuesday night at Chase Field.
Baylor won its first game since a 49-7 thrashing of Kansas on Oct. 15 at McLane Stadium and nailed down its seventh straight winning season with a 7-6 record. The Bears sent interim coach Jim Grobe out with a win in his final game before Matt Rhule slides into the head coaching seat.
The Baylor players celebrated by drenching Grobe and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett with a Gatorade shower.
“When they throw a bucket of Gatorade on you it makes you feel pretty good,” Grobe said. “I don’t want to downplay how excited I am and happy that we won the last game. It’s going to be a big win that stays with me a long, long time. We got a lot of big plays on both sides of the ball and just probably played as hard as we’ve played this year.”
Baylor has been under the microscope all year amid the sexual assault scandal that cost former coach Art Briles his job in May. After winning their first six games, the Bears dropped their last six of the regular season and were underdogs against Boise State (10-3).
“This has to be very rewarding for our guys,” Grobe said. “The things we’ve gone through this season have maybe been the hardest on our seniors. It’s been hard on our entire football team to stay focused. For our seniors to hang in there like they did and show the leadership they’ve shown, and to play great in their last game tells you what kind of character our kids have.”
While Cannon was the offensive star with a career-high 14 catches for 226 yards, Baylor’s defense delivered one big play after another. Travon Blanchard and Orion Stewart stopped first-half drives with interceptions while the defense made two more terrific stands inside the 10 to hold the Broncos to two first-half field goals.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Stewart stopped another drive when he recovered quarterback Brett Rypien’s fumble. Stewart also had a sack in the final game of his college career.
“I felt I played a pretty good game but it’s not about me,” Stewart said. “It’s about the team. We came in here and really dominated the game. We showed what we’re really capable of doing tonight. Coach (Bennett) put us in the best situation to make plays and that’s what we did. I feel like we dominated the line of scrimmage and the players on the back end made the plays they were supposed to make.”
Though Rypien hit 32 of 51 passes for 305 yards, he was sacked four times along with the two interceptions. The Bears shut down highly-touted running back Jeremy McNichols as he rushed for just 46 yards on 19 carries.
“We had a lot of doubters, but for us we just feed off of that,” Blanchard said. “We love the doubters, we embrace the vitriol. As a defense, we’re taught to give them nothing, make them earn everything they get.”
After senior quarterback Seth Russell went down with a broken leg Nov. 12 against Oklahoma, Smith lost his three regular season starts. But he played brilliantly against the Broncos as he hit 28 of 39 passes for three touchdowns while throwing one interception.
“I’m the same guy but I feel like I have more underneath my belt and I’m a lot more confident in my game,” Smith said. “This is a huge win for the program. It’s huge going into next year. We just showed a little bit of what we can do tonight.”
Terence Williams keyed the running game with 103 yards as the Bears amassed 515 total yards.
Blanchard came up with Baylor’s first big defensive play when he made a leaping interception of Rypien’s pass to Thomas Sperbeck at the 5 and returned it 14 yards.
The Bears cashed in as they drove 81 yards for a touchdown with Cannon making a spectacular 30-yard touchdown catch over Boise State’s Jonathan Moxey with 5:53 left in the first quarter.
The Broncos answered with Tyler Rausa’s 24-yard field goal, but Smith went back to Cannon again as he burned Moxey for a 68-yard touchdown to give the Bears a 14-3 lead with 12:14 left in the second quarter.
“They were just kind of giving us some one-on-one coverage, and with KD on anyone one-on-one we think it’s a win for us,” Smith said. “He’s a big playmaker, so I go to him and he usually gets the job done.”
Boise State moved 61 yards on its next drive but it ended when Stewart intercepted Rypien’s pass in the end zone. Instead of kneeling for a touchback, Stewart tried to turn the interception into a bigger play but only got to the 1.
“I’m trying to score,” Stewart said. “I want to be a playmaker, I want to get in the end zone. I wanted to break that interception record. I was trying to get 100 yards.”
The Bears followed with their most impressive drive of the night as they moved 99 yards on 15 plays that ended with JaMycal Hasty’s 5-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 21-3 with 4:19 left in the first half.
After Rausa ended the first half with his second field goal, Boise State had a chance to cut deeper into Baylor lead to open the second half. But after moving 74 yards to the 5, Baylor cornerback Ryan Reid broke up Rypien’s pass to Cedrick Wilson in the end zone.
Once again, Baylor’s offense responded by moving 78 yards to set up Chris Callahan’s 34-yard field goal to open up a 24-6 lead with 3:18 left in the third quarter.
The Bears scored their final touchdown when Smith his Ish Zamora with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 10:03 left in the game. Boise State finally got its only touchdown when Wilson caught a 28-yard pass from Rypien with 1:20 remaining.
By then it was far too late for the Broncos to think about a comeback. The Bears won their second straight bowl game following last year’s 49-38 win over North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“This means a lot coming off the season we really didn’t want to have losing six straight,” Cannon said. “People say a lot but they don’t realize the situation the players are in. Our whole team went through a lot. Just coming out with this win for our coaches and our fans and Coach Briles meant a lot.”