- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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WACO, Texas -- The Phil Bennett who held court with reporters late Thursday night was telling stories and laughing and glad-handing anyone who approached.
He looked like a proud papa, and not just because of his bright yellow V-neck sweater.
"I told the kids today: This is a validating game," Bennett said. "Validation of who we are and who we want to be."
The only thing that shocked the veteran defensive coordinator about his Baylor defense on Thursday night, in a 41-12 victory over No. 10 Oklahoma, might've been the ice-cold bath safety Ahmad Dixon and his teammates dumped on Bennett's head in the game's final minute.
He reacted with stunned, wide-eyed silence as Dixon and the rest of the Bears defenders jumped and screamed. But Bennett at least can appreciate their affection.
"After the way I work 'em, it's amazing they even speak to me," he joked later.
But he has people talking about his defense. The Bears aced their first serious test of this 8-0 season.
The game could've swung in the opposite direction quickly on this night. Baylor's offense got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, and its defense was put in some tough spots early.
The Sooners had four chances to score from 7 yards out after three Baylor personal-foul penalties. Blake Bell was stuffed on fourth and goal at the 1.
They got another opportunity for six points minutes later, with first and 10 at the 12, and settled for a field goal.
And on their next possession, the Sooners got three plays from the Baylor 31. Three incompletions and another field-goal attempt, this one missed.
When this Baylor team gives an opponent those kinds of chances, especially at home, touchdowns are a must. Oklahoma could've gone up 17-3 midway through the second quarter, putting real pressure on a team that doesn't have much experience playing from behind.
"You're not going to come here, get one touchdown and think you're going to win," OU coach Bob Stoops said.
Those goal-line stops proved to be the game-changer. Baylor put up 21 points in the second quarter and was never tested the rest of the way.
"I feel like that really set the tone," Baylor cornerback K.J. Morton said. "I feel like we had our back against the wall. We went out there on third down and were like, 'Come on. Everybody come together and do their job.'
"We practice really hard on the goal line, so everything we saw we'd worked on in practice. We already knew what they were going to do before they did it."
That's the kind of confidence Bennett has instilled in this defense. The starters have given up only nine touchdowns in eight games. They stopped the Sooners run game from the start, allowing 87 yards on 34 rushes. Oklahoma went 4-for-17 on third downs.
And this was not another cupcake opponent for Baylor. It wasn't a top-50 offense entering the night, but it was one that had nearly two weeks to prepare an attack that would expose this much-improved unit. Didn't happen.
"I think we just showed we can play defense and compete with any team in this conference and the nation," BU defensive end Chris McAllister said.
Bennett believes his defense really bought into that belief after a 35-25 win at Kansas State, perhaps the unit's worst defensive showing of the season. A new standard was set for what his players were willing to accept.
"We're taking it one game at a time," Bennett said. "If you do that, every game gets better and bigger. I do believe we can play with anybody in the country. Time will tell."
This is his third year in Waco. The first two, he said, required some of the best coaching he's ever done in a career that began in 1979. And that was just to build a foundation, to build trust and experience and develop leaders.
Now eight of his starters are juniors or seniors, and the depth behind them has never been better. Now Baylor is really playing some defense.
"We're not a tradition," Bennett said, "but we're going to be here awhile, the way this thing is going."
They had the attention of the nation on Thursday night, of folks skeptical that their improvements would hold up against a top-10 team.
"Keep doubting us," Dixon said. "We'll earn your respect sooner or later."
They might not convince everyone else until later, but on Thursday they at least got the Sooners.
18hDavid Ching and Edward Aschoff
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