By Wendell Barnhouse | email@example.com
WACO, Texas -
This is not your father's Baylor. It's not your older brother's Baylor. And it's definitely not RG3's Baylor.
And all three of those comments are positives, not negatives.
Sunday night started a new era for Baylor football. There's a Heisman Trophy in the athletic offices but the player who won it, Robert Griffin III, is pitching products and football in the NFL. After a magical 10-win season, the skeptics wondered if the Bears could maintain and cope with success.
For the short term, Baylor answered its doubters. The Bears capitalized on mistakes, displayed thunder on defense and lightning on offense to send SMU back to Dallas carrying a 59-24 season-opening loss.
"We felt like we had to come out and see what we were," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "Like a lot of teams, we weren't sure. We had a team that wanted to prove itself."
Senior Nick Florence – who is appealing to the NCAA for a sixth-year of eligibility – probably isn't going to win a Heisman but he proved he's more than capable of keeping Baylor's offense in gear. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 341 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Florence carried three times for 24 yards and added a 54-yard pooch punt for good measure.
So his post-game comments were accurate – no brag, just fact.
"It was a great first start," he said. "I wanna be better. I couldn't ask for a better situation. I had a blast out there. I just wanna play ball and I wanna complete every pass."
Briles said in practices Florence has been completing passes at an 80 percent clip. Completing 70 percent in Game One isn't exactly under achieving.
The Bears scored touchdowns on their first two possessions. Florence's 6-yard TD pass to Lanear Sampson capped an opening drive that covered 75 yards in 10 plays and took 3:42. Baylor's six other touchdown drives clocked in under 2:06. The Bears got their offensive work done despite SMU having a 92-67 edge in plays and a 39:55 to 20:05 edge in time of possession.
Baylor has now scored 40 or more points in five consecutive games and has had 500 or more yards of total offense in eight consecutive games. In addition to replacing RG3, leading rusher Terrance Ganaway and leading receiver Kendall Wright have moved on.
The offense totaled 613 yards with Jarred Salubi gaining 91 yards on 13 carries and Glasco Martin with 50 yards on 10 tries. Terrance Williams had seven catches for 138 ayrds while Sampson finished with five for 69 yards on two TDs.
"RG3 texted me before the game and he told me to be myself," Florence said. "Just because he leaves, doesn't mean things change. We're still gonna roll with this offense."
Florence, who as a freshman in 2009 took over for an injured RG3, was somewhat of a known commodity. A major question mark for the Bears was their defense, which gave up too many yards and points last season.
Baylor unveiled a ball-hawking, hard-hitting 3-4 defense led by sophomore linebacker Bryce Hager, who finished with a career-high 14 tackles.
The Bears turned the game with a defensive play and put it to bed with a defensive play.
After Baylor's offense stalled on three straight possessions, SMU closed to 14-3 on a field goal and then was poised to put game pressure on the Bears. But on a second-and-goal from its own nine, Garrett Gilbert's on-target was tipped five times before winding up in the hands of Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey, who returned it 23 yards.
It took the Bears three plays to cash in as Florence hit Tevin Reese for a 50-yard touchdown.
"We've been working on the deep ball a lot," said Florence, who had five completions of 30-plus yards. "I think it paid off tonight."
Another turnover turned the game into a rout. The Mustangs' first possession of the second half ended when K.J. Morton laid the wood on Darius Johnson after he made a catch. Mike Hicks scooped up the ball and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown. Morton and Lackey provided key blocks on the return that gave SMU a 31-3 lead.
"Playing the 3-4, we've got a lot of guys on the field with speed who can make plays," Hicks said. "People were wondering if we were gonna be better on defense. We didn't like giving up 21 points in the second half but I think we showed that we're a better defense. And we can get better."
Baylor won its last six games in 2011 and during its seven-game winning streak that continued Sunday night the Bears are plus-13 in turnover margin.
"When the game was tight, made some huge plays on defense," Briles said. "What I saw was guys making plays on defense, I saw a tough mentality and an attitude. We bent just a little but didn't break much."