HOUSTON — Robert Griffin’s bag of tricks has been on endless supply this season. In leading Baylor to its first bowl game since 1994, the sophomore quarterback’s poise and ability to operate Baylor’s Corvette of an offense was pretty much a constant.
For an entire half of Wednesday’s Texas Bowl loss to Illinois, that Swiss watch timing was well off course.
Not subtly, either. Baylor entered the half with no points, just 150 yards of offense and in a 16-0 hole. The trap was already closing, and the offense was no closer to finding answers.
“When I was on, everybody else was off, and when I was off, everyone else was on,” Griffin said. “We did a better job in the second half, but at the same time, we’ll just make sure that we’re on the same page more often.”
The causes were multifold. Often, it was a matter of inches. On the first drive of the game, Griffin threw a screen to Jarred Salubi that just missed the mark, and being a backward pass, it turned into a fumble that eventually resulted in three points.
The rest of the first half was a barren wasteland, offensively. None of the next four drives lasted longer than four plays, robbing the Bears of any rhythm. Two of those drives ended with Baylor unable to pick up the necessary three yards on a pair of third downs.
The Bears didn’t get back into Illinois territory until the last drive of the half, which ended with a missed 57-yard field goal as time ticked off. Griffin finished with 306 passing yards, but 206 of those came after Baylor was in a 24-point hole.
Likewise, an Illinois front seven that threw multiple new looks at the Baylor offense held running back Jay Finley just 13 yards at halftime and 64 by game’s end.
“We had a hard time getting in rhythm after the opening drive,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “We had four or five series where we really didn’t hit much of anything. It’s hard to really get a feel for things when you’re not on the field very long.”
One of the most glaring misses was the lack of cohesion between Griffin and the rest of the offense. Kendall Wright finally warmed up in the second half when Griffin finally settled into a semblance of a rhythm.
But by then, the Illini had already rolled out to a 24-0 lead after a touchdown on their first possession of the second half. It was a deep hole for any offense, let alone one that was having trouble protecting Griffin, finding plays downfield and getting Finley involved in any substantive way. Griffin didn’t hit on a pass play longer than 39 yards.
“It was just me and (Griffin) weren’t on the same page,” Wright said. “We were losing the ball in the lights, but that’s no excuse. We had to pick it up in the second half.”
Though they refused to target it as an excuse, the Baylor receivers had trouble locating a number of Griffin’s passes under Reliant Stadium’s unfamiliar light scheme. Even on Wright’s 39-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter to make it 24-14, Wright didn’t see the ball until it dropped into his hands in the end zone. That was fated to be as close as Baylor got.
“I knew as soon as I walked into the stadium, I saw the lights and said, ‘That’s going to be a problem,’” Griffin said. “Coming into a new stadium, those lights were bright.”
Indeed, in more ways than one.