- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- "Tough" is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Baylor football, at least not historically. Anyone familiar with the football program's old struggles can attest to that.
But even this season, Baylor's most successful one through nine games, the road has rarely been rocky for the Bears. Most of their Saturdays have consisted of racking up points and offensive statistics at a pace similar to a 1980s teenager posting the high score on an arcade game. Rarely have they been challenged.
The last two weeks have been different in that regard. In the first quarter of both games, the Bears weren't able to operate their offense on cruise control. They idled before being able to crank it up to sixth gear.
The No. 5 Bears' resiliency when things aren't going right, the
toughnessthey showed in those situations the last two weeks, has put a smile on the face of Baylor head coach Art Briles, the latest example being a 63-34 win over Texas Tech on Saturday at AT&T Stadium.
"It looks impressive if you're ahead of a team 56-14 at half," Briles said. "But when you're down 14-0, you're down 20-7, and you withstand that surge against a good team and come back and finish the way we finished as a team, to me
that'simpressive. That shows you have a tough football team, a tough-minded football team that's mature and believes in what's happening inside the locker room."
Finish they did.
After falling behind by two touchdowns on two occasions in the first quarter, the Bears struck back with a special teams touchdown -- a 58-yard punt return by Levi Norwood, one of three touchdowns he scored Saturday -- and by the end of the first quarter the Bears were up 21-20.
They extended the lead to 28-20 early in the second quarter and though the Red Raiders continued to fight to stay in the game, it never felt like the game was out of Baylor's control after the opening quarter.
When it comes to great teams, it's not just how they handle adversity but how they handle success that defines them. Before last week, Baylor had yet to face much real adversity in the heat of a game and spent much of the season watching its offense -- and honestly, its defense -- meet little resistance. But on a grand stage Nov. 7 with eyeballs across the country focused on them, Oklahoma gave the Bears a challenge early on and the Bears overcame it to eventually notch another blowout victory.
On Saturday the Bears (9-0) were dealt a similar hand, this time in a different manner, when Texas Tech jumped out to 14-0 and 20-7 leads. Things could have become murky easily. Texas Tech had lost three straight coming into Saturday's game but this was a team that started 7-0, a team just talented enough and aggressive enough to be dangerous.
Baylor didn't panic and did what it has done to so many others, which was find was to score points in bunches -- and in a hurry. And the Bears did it without big play receiver Tevin Reese, starting running back Lache Seastrunk and senior running back Glasco Martin, who all missed the game because of injuries. The defense lost senior linebacker Bryce Hager to an injury during the game, but still finished with a strong second half. The confidence oozing out of this team is evident.
"For me, I couldn't be happier," junior quarterback Bryce Petty said. "If y'all could see in my facemask, I'm smiling the whole time because it is really a fun offense to play with and guys that I love to be around. They just work hard and they come to work every day. They try to be better today than they were yesterday and keep it on going."
Give Kliff Kingsbury's squad credit. The Red Raiders (7-4) had nothing to lose and they played like it. They put pressure on the Bears early, beating them at their own game of quick-strike offense running at a breakneck tempo, something Kingsbury specializes in. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was slinging it all over the field. His receivers helped him out a lot too, making some terrific catches and beating man-to-man coverage.
But the Bears didn't let Texas Tech's quick start and aggressive approach rattle them, just like they didn't let a touchdown-less first quarter against the Sooners deter their efforts last week. The punt return by Norwood sparked the onslaught. The defense did its part too, recovering two of Texas Tech's four fumbles and pressuring Mayfield, sacking him three times. After running 61 plays in the first half, Texas Tech had just 27 in the second.
And when it came time to put the Red Raiders away, the Bears did that. Early in the third with Texas Tech nearing Baylor's red zone and looking to make it a one-score game, the Bears came up with a stop on fourth-and-short. Though it was a questionably spotted ball, the result went in Baylor's favor and it took only five plays and 1:16 for the Bears to find the end zone again and turn it into a three-score game.
"I'm extremely proud of our players," Briles said. "I thought we were good in all three phases of the game. We made plays when he had had to make plays. Turnovers on defense, special teams touchdown, big plays offensively when we had to hit them. Got out of here with a good win. That's the way I saw it."
The Bears are in a position they've never been in before. They're a legitimate top-five team with a BCS bowl game a certainty so long that they continue to win and at least a glimmer of hope at sneaking into the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, though they need help to achieve that feat.
Now a showdown at No. 12 Oklahoma State awaits, the next chance to make a statement. Baylor can't control what others ranked ahead of it do, but if the Bears can finish the season like they've finished the last two games, they might just make things interesting in the national landscape.
"We fought our butts off to get where we are now," senior safety Ahmad Dixon said. "It's fun to be a part of this team. I'm enjoying it."
1hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill
2hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill