ARLINGTON — A tanker truck full of Listerine couldn’t wash away the bitter taste stuck in Baylor’s throats. All the ammonia swabs in the world aren’t going to soothe the sting.

For the Bears, this one will hurt for a while. Maybe forever.

And it should. That’s the way it’s supposed to feel when you allow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead to evaporate into the climate-controlled air, or any air for that matter. (Somewhere, 30,000 TCU fans just nodded in unison).

No loss ever goes down easy, but for the Bears this one should be particularly tough to swallow. Baylor’s 42-41 loss to Michigan State in Thursday’s Cotton Bowl mirrored a New Year’s party where the champagne is flat, the DJ plays nothing but Justin Bieber and at midnight you end up kissing the receptionist with the unibrow and the overbite.

Baylor’s defeat delivers a gut punch to a program that seemed poised to land its own knockout blow. You could see it in the slumped shoulders of Baylor’s players and coaches after the game, and hear it in their cracked voices.

“This is one of the tougher non-wins that I’ve ever experienced, quite honestly,” Baylor coach Art Briles said.

If it felt as though Briles couldn’t bring himself to say the word “loss,” well, that’s because for 45 minutes of this 60-minute game Baylor had put itself in position not only to win, but to win big. To thump its chest. To make a statement.

In the end, the statement the Bears made instead still spoke volumes. The statement being — changes must be made.

Hang with me, because this isn’t a blow-up-the-drawing-board column, half of which are written merely for shock value. It would be an overreaction for media and fans to begin calling for drastic changes to Baylor’s football program. Remember, the Bears have still won 22 games and consecutive conference championships. They finished one spot out of the College Football Playoff. They’re not the Texas Longhorns. They don’t need to fire everybody.

A new standard

Forget the Cotton Bowl. Before Art Briles came along, Baylor fans would have given their right arms to play in the Polyester Bowl.

But it would also be a massive oversight to ignore Baylor’s issues.

And the Bears definitely have some issues. In the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl, two of Baylor’s most egregious recurring problems — discipline and pass coverage — reared their head again, at the worst possible time.

I don’t care how fast Baylor plays. It doesn’t matter if they get off 200 plays a night. If the Bears can’t eliminate the flag football from their game, they’ll never make the next-level jump as a program. Baylor — which entered the game as the second-most penalized team in the country — committed several costly mistakes down the stretch. Corey Coleman’s facemask flag on a long catch over the middle. Andrew Billings’ block in the back on Taylor Young’s interception return. Eliminate either of those, and Baylor probably wins.

Pass coverage

As for the defensive secondary, the Bears are in desperate need of reinforcements in that unit. Baylor’s DBs played with fire all year — and, to be fair, they occasionally pulled off some dazzling flame juggling maneuvers — but they’ve also got some third and fourth-degree burns to show for it. They’re not nearly consistent enough.

But let’s get to the bottom line. In the end, Baylor must finish better. For the second straight year, the Bears had a chance to put together a rocking, bring-down-the-house encore, only to give their fans the equivalent of an accordion solo.

It’s been suggested that non-playoff bowl games are meaningless, but try losing one.

“There’s no greater feeling than winning your bowl game,” Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. “No matter what it is. If it’s the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl, whatever it is. It propels you moving into winter conditioning and offseason workouts, knowing that you finished at the top and you finished strong.”

Whatever the flip side of that feeling is, that’s where the Bears find themselves. Instead of charging into the offseason with gusto, they’re flipping on the backup lights and shifting into reverse.

Call it a bad case of Cotton mouth.

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