Florence, Williams create their own Baylor legacy
Few outside of Waco saw Nov. 17 coming. Not just the result, but the way it all happened. Kansas State entered its late-season matchup with Baylor as a 12.5-point favorite; the Wildcats were the top-ranked team in the BCS and boasted the presumptive Heisman frontrunner in quarterback Collin Klein. Then, over the course of the next few hours, the Bears thumped the Wildcats 52-24.
Few outside of Waco remembered last year's game, when Baylor led Kansas State by nine points deep into the fourth quarter before coughing away a 36-35 heartbreaker. And few knew just how desperately the Bears wanted payback.
"I'm not trying to sound arrogant, but that's something we really had a bad memory from last year," said receiver Terrance Williams. "This year, coach [Art Briles] had the same gameplan, but he told us we had to put up points to give the defense momentum. That's what we did."
Before its upset of Kansas State sent this year's BCS title race into a tailspin, Baylor was largely written off. It was a season past its expiration date, a team in transition after losing five players to the NFL draft last April. It was expected to limp to the finish line after dropping four consecutive Big 12 contests from Sept. 29-Oct. 27.
But given the history surrounding Williams and quarterback Nick Florence, that ending simply wouldn't have fit.
When Florence committed to Baylor in March 2007, the program was in a vastly different state than it is now. Back then, Guy Morriss was the coach and the Bears hadn't posted a winning season since 1995. Florence, who was preparing for a senior year in which he'd pass for 3,018 yards and 30 touchdowns at South (Garland, Texas) High, offered his verbal pledge in hopes of becoming the quarterback who could turn it all around.
Eight months later, circumstances had drastically changed. Morriss was ousted following a 3-9 season -- he went just 18-40 during his five-year tenure -- and Briles came over from Houston to replace him. Briles brought with him a prized recruit from Copperas Cove, Texas, a dynamic young player named Robert Griffin III. After setting his sights on Baylor since working with a youth group in Waco, Florence found his future suddenly in doubt.
But Briles honored Florence's scholarship, and Florence chose to stay put. Despite falling on the depth chart before he ever arrived on campus, Florence maintained the belief that Baylor was the place for him.
"Yeah, he brought Griff in and Griff was his guy," said Florence. "But for me, it was more than a football decision. If Baylor was gonna turn things around, it had to bring in great recruits. He was a great recruit. So you wanted Griff coming."
Over the next few years, Florence played sporadically. He started the final seven games of his freshman year after Griffin and Blake Szymanski went down with injuries, but he threw just 12 passes as a sophomore. He was set to accept a redshirt as a junior, but on Nov. 26, 2011, that plan was instantly scrapped. Griffin suffered a concussion in the first half of a game against Texas Tech, and Briles approached Florence about taking his place. Florence was asked to forgo a full year of eligibility for a mere 30 minutes of playing time.
He didn't hesitate to respond. "For me, there was really no question and no doubt in my mind," Florence said. "I burned [my redshirt] on the spot. I don't regret it one bit. My team needed me and that's what I'm there for. It's a team game. It was worth it."
Florence went 9-of-12 for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Baylor pulled away in the third quarter en route to a 66-42 win.
"To me, that was the ultimate goal of sacrificing for the team," said Williams. "That's something that really stuck with me. I feel like I owe it to him to give my best to return the favor."
Once Griffin departed to the NFL, Florence finally assumed the starting gig. And as the 2012 campaign kicked off, he was itching to prove he was more than just RGIII's understudy.
Williams entered this season in a somewhat similar situation. A former standout at W.T. White High in Dallas, he was originally billed as a two-star recruit. He amassed 972 receiving yards and eights touchdowns as a senior, but no one seemed to notice. He was still perceived as too raw and too weak. He received offers from only Baylor and Colorado State; scouts didn't think he had what it took to cut it as a major-conference wide receiver.
Yet after arriving in Waco, Williams quickly made a name for himself. He won the Offensive Bear Squad Award for work on the scout team while redshirting in 2008, and he was named Baylor's co-special teams MVP as a punt and kick returner in 2009. In 2011, he broke out. Williams racked up 957 receiving yards and 11 scores, and he made the game-winning 34-yard touchdown catch to stun Oklahoma with eight seconds remaining.
"The thing about Terrance, he's extremely tough, he's extremely physical," said Briles. "That's a good combination to have as a receiver when you've got speed, length and hands to go with it."
Still, heading into his senior year, Williams was also tasked with replacing a program legend. Receiver Kendall Wright set or tied 16 school records -- he set the all-time marks for catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns -- before wrapping up his career at the end of last season. Williams would have to do more than become the No. 1 target; he'd have to fill the void left by the most prolific wideout in Baylor history.
Much like Florence, Williams embraced the opportunity. "People thought we were gonna have a drop off," said Williams. "We took it as a personal challenge to prove people wrong. And we continue to go out and do that each and every week."
When Baylor started 3-0 this season, those doubts were temporarily silenced. But they quickly resurfaced after the Bears' midseason skid. Baylor lost four games in a row to tumble off the national radar. Its 70-63 loss at West Virginia on Sept. 29 was a microcosm of the streak: The offense thrived, but the defense couldn't make a stop.
"I think for us as a team, we knew we're a good team but we just weren't putting complete games together," said Florence. "We were in a lot of games, but we kind of fizzled at the end or somewhere in there."
That's when Florence and Williams showed the resiliency they've demonstrated throughout their careers. In addition to elevating their own play, they motivated others to get better. And it showed: The defense allowed an average of 31.8 points per game since the start of November (it surrendered an average of 42.7 before), and transfer running back Lache Seastrunk scampered for 499 yards and two touchdowns in victories over Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Baylor won four of its final five games, and at the end of the regular season, the stats were staggering. Florence averaged an FBS-best 387.7 yards of total offense per game, while Williams was named a Biletnikoff Award finalist after leading the nation with 1,764 receiving yards. However improbably, the pair evolved into the most potent quarterback-to-receiver tandem in the country.
Especially in regard to the Bears' oft-overlooked quarterback, that took a lot of people by surprise.
"The thing that gets lost in Nick, and it took me about 10 or 11 games to realize it, is when you look at him, and when you talk about him, you do notice all these great intangibles that he possesses," said Briles. "But the thing that's overlooked is that he has talent. He is an extremely talented football player. It's easy to look at a guy and say he's mature, he's married, he's got great instincts, he's a fierce competitor. But the guy is good. He's a winner. That's what excels at the end of the day with him."
When Baylor meets UCLA in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, Williams and Florence will play in their final collegiate game. The game won't be met with the fanfare of last year's Alamo Bowl, and it will be hard-pressed to match the excitement: Baylor and Washington accounted for 1,397 yards of offense in the Bears' 67-56 victory over the Huskies last December.
Yet if Baylor's upset of Kansas State taught us anything, it's not to discount this year's team. Though it certainly has major holes to address -- it allows an average of 513.9 yards per game, a lowly 119th in the FBS -- it also boasts the top-ranked offense in the nation. Most importantly, it awoke from a mid-year slumber to clinch a third consecutive bowl berth for the first time in program history.
"When we lose people, they will find ways to make different people successful," said Williams. "Whether it's using different formations, they will find a way to make people successful."
Nick Florence is not Robert Griffin III. Terrance Williams isn't Kendall Wright. But while few outside of Waco expected much from this team before Nov. 17, the duo helped Baylor finish the season with a bang. And after shocking the top-ranked Wildcats, they did more than turn the page from last year; they carved out a legacy of their very own.
That's the ending that was scripted for Williams and Florence all along.