Don't look for Baylor and Art Briles to be making many more trips to Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks looked primed for another upset after beating Arkansas in overtime, then taking the Razorbacks' SEC West brethren Auburn to extra football before falling. Friday night, America's sweethearts proved the warnings right, though the Bears became the second team in two weeks to narrowly escape a major upset.
Louisiana-Monroe's Kolton Browning gave Baylor's defense fits in the second half but fumbled an exchange on a zone read with the Warhawks in Baylor territory. The Bears scooped it up, converted a fourth-and-1 near midfield and iced the 47-42 victory with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Nick Florence to Terrance Williams.
Even if a defense is struggling, one break can change a game.
The track meet between Baylor and Louisiana-Monroe turned on that fumble, and headache-inducing tackling issues aside, the Bears defense got that big break from Browning's miscue.
Those games against Auburn and Arkansas? The Warhawks rode a jacked-up, record crowd of 31,175 to some crystal-clear validation that Louisiana-Monroe can contend with the big boys. Monroe capitalized on a pair of early Florence interceptions and raced to a 21-7 lead, but Baylor's resurgence was impressive. The Bears are an experienced team and looked the part. The offense appeared unfazed after the early struggles, and the Bears won the turnover battle 3-0 the rest of the way. That moved Baylor to 11-0 when forcing at least two turnovers since defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's arrival before the 2011 season.
That said, it was anything but a banner night for Bennett's unit. The concerns about the defense? Certainly valid. Baylor gave up 262 yards rushing and touchdown runs of 48 and 58 yards. Browning was consistently able to buy time with his feet, and the Bears' underwhelming secondary often paid for it.
Still, if you're going to learn a lesson, you'd like it to not be a painful one. There will be plenty to pick on in film study next week, but Baylor escaped with a victory and extended its win streak to nine games, the nation's longest among teams playing as members of BCS conferences for the duration of the streak.
Baylor's offense once again picked up the slack and delivered, even in a difficult scenario and playing from behind. Last year, the Bears became the first team to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up 30 points. Baylor gave up 42 tonight, but a huge night from Florence and the Receiving Machines wrote a rough final chapter to Louisiana-Monroe's Cinderella story. Florence finished with 351 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-39 passing, with Tevin Reese picking up eight catches for 145 yards and two scores. Williams added two scores of his own.
It was ugly. It was nerve-wracking for the Bears. Plenty of concerns emerged, and we hardly mentioned the Bears' inability to run the ball with consistency until the final few drives.
Still, it was a win. As brutal Big 12 play is set to begin for Baylor in Morgantown, W.Va., next week, every win is a must-have.