Bears will be just fine with Nick Florence
A Baylor receiver celebrating a long touchdown catch in the end zone while his quarterback sprinted toward him?
Exactly one year earlier, Robert Griffin III kicked off his Heisman-winning season with five touchdown passes in an upset of TCU.
On Sunday night, Nick Florence threw four of his own, leading to the same celebration after a 36-yard rainbow to Lanear Sampson that gave the Bears a six-touchdown lead in their 59-24 blowout win of former Southwest Conference rival SMU.
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesQuarterback Nick Florence got off to a strong start Sunday night.
"Nick was Nick, and that's what you are going to love about him," coach Art Briles said. "That's what we love about Nick; he's going to be that way every time he steps on the football field."
Florence earned playing time in 2009 when RG3 sat with a torn ACL and rallied the Bears for a win over Texas Tech in Cowboys Stadium last November, but in his first game as the new face of Baylor football, he finished 21-of-30 for 341 yards and no turnovers.
"He's going to continue improving," Briles said. "Honestly, for him percentage-wise [Sunday], it was a little low."
Baylor's history-making quarterback wasn't in attendance on Sunday (even if his top target a year ago, fellow first-round draft pick Kendall Wright was), but even in his absence, his presence was felt.
His toothy smile after receiving last year's Heisman Trophy adorns the western wall of Floyd Casey Stadium. Throughout Sunday's rout, the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback tweeted encouragement to his former teammates and celebrated their successes with almost as much gusto as he did his own a year ago.
"The touchdowns just keep coming," he wrote. "Ha ha gotta love this."
Griffin texted Florence before Sunday's game with a simple message: Be yourself.
That's exactly who the 6-foot-1, 205-pound, married senior quarterback was.
"My receivers and running backs -- for me, I couldn't ask for a better situation to step into," Florence said. "I've got a lot of confidence and we have a lot of playmakers."
Headliner Terrance Williams proved he could be an offense's No. 1 target, hauling in seven catches for 138 yards. Running backs Jarred Salubi and Glasco Martin combined for 141 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, an average of more than 6 yards a touch.
"My freshman year I was nervous more than anything," Florence said, referencing the nine games he started in 2009. "Tonight and leading up to this, I was excited."
Florence doesn't have Griffin's rocket arm that had NFL scouts drooling over him during last year's 10-win season. He doesn't have the legs that made Griffin a one-time Olympic-caliber hurdler. He told media this week he's just a "normal" guy without flashy speeches and head-turning socks with capes or cartoon characters splashed on them.
He might have something Griffin never had at Baylor, though: a defense.
Briles and his defensive coordinator, second-year man Phil Bennett, were encouraged by a late surge in 2011. Despite giving up more than 38 points a game over the final six games, the Bears were plus-10 in turnover margin and won all six games. Griffin had a big part in that, but forcing turnovers was the first step toward the progress Bennett worked toward his entire first season.
After Florence connected with Sampson on his final touchdown pass of the night, Baylor led 45-3.
"I told y'all I think y'all would be surprised by our defense, and they showed up tonight," Florence said. "They showed you what they can do. ... For an offense, you couldn't ask for a better game from your defense."
Baylor dominated the turnover margin 3-0, including an interception near the goal line to preserve an early 14-3 lead and a touchdown on a 66-yard fumble return early in the third quarter to put the Bears up 31-3.
The Mustangs boasted a big-name quarterback of their own, too. Texas transfer and former five-star recruit Garrett Gilbert struggled in his first start just weeks after officially joining SMU, finishing with 286 yards on 34-of-59 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions, both off tipped passes.
"We're a tough football team, without a question," Briles said. "I think we're a team that knows how to win, that believes they're going to win and can certainly play in spurts of dynamic qualities on both sides of the ball."
That's what happened on Sunday night, even without the man who changed the program.
Griffin changed Baylor forever, not just for the time he was on campus.
Florence and friends proved that much in their first game without him.
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