HOUSTON — Rice is sometimes called the “Harvard of the South.”
Yet it was Baylor that displayed moments of brilliance on Saturday night, albeit intermingled with outbreaks of brain freeze.
It was a weird night, but maybe that’s to be expected at a stadium where the center-field logo is written in calligraphy and the parking lot attendants don’t bother with the nuisance of charging anyone for the right to park. “Come on in! You got any friends you want to bring with you?”
“We have to improve a lot of things going forward,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said.
You can say that again, Jack — er, Matt. And he did.
Baylor dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard. All night long, it felt as though the Bears should have scored two to three more touchdowns than they had at the time. They were sharp — except when they weren’t. They were efficient — except when they weren’t. They were physical — well, you get the idea. You don’t need a Harvard (or Rice) degree to pick up on the trend.
The Bears beat the Owls, and even when it got close in the fourth quarter it never really seemed like they’d lose. They also beat themselves.
Now, it’s time to try to put it all into context. Was this game a momentary blip on the radar? Or might it be a man-the-torpedoes, full-blown panic alarm?
I think it’s probably the former, but the Bears need to bleach out the smudges they showed in those all-white uniforms if they want to prevent it from becoming the latter. In these moments, the temptation to overreact always beckons.
Let’s try to avoid that temptation and deal with the hard data. You know, what they might do over at the nearby Texas Medical Center.
So, just the facts, ma’am:
The Bears’ defense didn’t allow Rice to crack the end zone until the fourth quarter. Through three games, it’s hard to not view Baylor’s move to a 3-3-5 alignment as a success. The Bears look leaner, faster.
During some early stretches of Saturday’s game, I thought James Lockhart and Bravvion Roy looked positively dominant. That’s a positive sign for Baylor. We all know that James Lynch can often look like the second coming of J.J. Watt. Now, it’s up to Lockhart and Roy to turn those stretches of dynamism into entire games of it.
Rhule actually compared the defense’s tendency to carry the load on Saturday to Baylor’s last trip to Houston. Remember that game? The Texas Bowl against Vanderbilt? Only that day, the roles were reversed, and it was the offense shouldering the heavier burden while the Commodores blazed through the Baylor D.
“It’s just when it’s the defense doing it, it looks like a sloppy game,” Rhule said.
The Bears lost two fumbles. Again, at times in the first half, Baylor cut through Rice’s defense like a knife through warm butter. The hot-footed BU receivers left their Rice shadows behind like they were standing still, and Charlie Brewer hit them in stride.
But in the second half, the butter bit back. Everything seemed far more sluggish. Give the Owls some credit for that, but the Bears also need to take some of the blame.
“We were about to set records, and then we had as bad a second half as you can ever have, until Denzel made that great play at the end,” Rhule said.
As Baylor moves forward and the competition grows progressively tougher, the Bears can’t afford such carelessness. In short: they need to hang on to the dadgummed ball.
And the last fact worth noting: Baylor won the game. The fact that it didn’t lose shouldn’t be lost on all the Monday Morning Quarterbacks out there.
Ugly wins happen. And guess what? They’re a lot sexier than “pretty” losses.
“Honestly, you’re going to have games like this, and good teams find ways to battle through those games,” Rhule said. “I’ve had a lot of games like this, where you just have to find a way to win. As I told our guys, don’t apologize for winning. If this was 2017, we’d all be jumping for joy if we won that game.
“So, don’t ever apologize for winning. But at the same time, understand that that’s not going to be good enough to win a lot of these games moving forward.”
Sometimes, you need a wake-up call. If you’ve driven all day, and then you have to get up at 4 a.m. to be at the airport in time, you make darn sure to schedule that wake-up call. You can’t afford to miss the flight.
In a similar way, an ugly win can be the perfect pin prick for a football team whose heads may have grown a bit too big. They’re college kids. You don’t think they sometimes take thing for granted? Of course they do.
“I really believe this with all my heart. We needed that game,” Rhule said. “We needed that experience.”
Smart teams learn from these moments.
We’re about to find out just how smart these Bears really are.