WACO, Texas -- While a town and a campus hyped a game as they have never hyped a game before, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett left his house on Thursday feeling at peace. "I'm at ease with the plan," Bennett recalled telling his wife. "I think we're going to be OK."
A few hours later, when the Bears' vaunted offense kept stalling and Oklahoma ran play after play in the red zone, none of the old fears crept into Bennett's gut. There was no concern that Baylor would collapse on blackout night at a packed, tarpless Floyd Casey Stadium. Giving up 70 points at West Virginia in September 2012 may as well have happened in another lifetime. Baylor's defense had proven to Bennett for months that it can play with anyone. He knew the Bears were more than an offense that simply outscored opponents. On Thursday, the Bears had to prove it to the world.
On Oklahoma's final possession of the first quarter, it drove deep into Baylor territory thanks to a bizarre sequence that featured a targeting call (later overturned) on Bears cornerback K.J. Morton followed by two 15-yard penalties called on safety Ahmad Dixon, who went berserk when officials flagged Morton for a the violent but ultimately shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard. Those penalties moved the ball from the Baylor 45-yard line to the Baylor seven-yard line. The quarter ended, and the teams marched to the other side of the field for a red-zone showdown. On the third play of the second quarter, quarterback Blake Bell and the Sooners faced fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Oklahoma went full Belldozer, hoping the 6-foot-6, 252-pound signal-caller could muscle his way into the end zone the way he did four times in Waco two years ago. Morton rode Bell down for a one-yard loss.
Then, after Baylor's offense allowed quarterback Bryce Petty to get sacked for a safety and the kick coverage unit allowed Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders to return the ensuing free kick to the Baylor 12-yard line, the Bears' defense took the field again. It allowed seven yards in three plays, and kicker Michael Hunnicutt trotted onto the field to attempt a 22-yard field goal for three of the most miserable points a team has ever scored. Oklahoma had run seven offensive plays inside the Baylor 12, and the Sooners had five points. They didn't stand a chance.
"They were talking a little crap while the game was going," Morton said. "After we stopped them [in the red zone], you could tell. You can tell when you've knocked the fight out of somebody. We just try to keep pounding after that."
That's exactly what they did. Petty and the offense awoke from their pass rush-induced funk to score the next 27 points. Baylor rode that momentum to a 41-12 win that might -- to someone who only read the box score -- look like a highlight-reel stuffer for the offense. However, anyone who watched the game knows it was the worst the Bears' offense has played all season. Baylor's defense, so long a liability, was the team's strength on Thursday. It allowed only 237 yards and 3.4 yards a play. In the process, the Bears ran their record to 8-0 for the first time in school history and sent a clear message that this is not a team with a gadget offense and only a passing interest in stopping opponents.
After the game, Petty wasn't shy about thanking the defense or criticizing himself and the offense. "It was ugly," he said of the offense's performance for the first quarter and a half.
The fourth-year junior had the toughest adjustment. Oklahoma's 3-3-5 scheme provided the first real pressure Petty has faced all season, and he developed a case of happy feet. He overthrew receivers. He underthrew receivers. It wasn't until he took a few between-the-tackles tumbles on read-option keepers that Petty finally relaxed. "A few runs or a few hits," said Petty, who threw for 204 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 45 yards and two scores. "However you wanted to look at it."
After that, the offense didn't exactly hum, but it scored more than enough thanks to the play of the defense. By the time Baylor turned an Eddie Lackey interception of Bell into a 35-second touchdown drive that gave the Bears a 24-5 halftime lead, the outcome was already secure. "We were horrible on third-and-shorts, fourth-and-shorts and goal line. They out-executed us, definitely," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "You've got to make those. You can't come in here and have one touchdown in the middle of the third quarter and think you're going to win. It's just not going to happen."
Does this result mean Baylor is a national title contender? We don't know yet. The latest BCS standings had Oklahoma at No. 10, but the Sooners probably aren't that good. They'll likely finish the season ranked considerably lower. The picture will become much more clear in the next two weeks after Baylor faces Texas Tech at Jerry Jones' Football Emporium in Arlington and Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
Still, Baylor is a lot closer to the national title hunt than are most of the teams that recruited Dixon, a Waco native and prospect in the class of 2010. Other programs sold visions of crystal footballs. "Every one except for Baylor," Dixon said on Thursday. "It was the only school that didn't tell me we were going to win the national championship or go to the national championship."
Instead, Bears coach Art Briles sold something less tangible. "We had to sell them a vision of hope and faith, without question," Briles said. "We didn't have a lot of reality." Dixon and a few others believed. "Coach Briles just had a dream, and his dream was to build this program up," Dixon said. "That's why I wanted to be a part of it. This program is on the rise."
Meanwhile, players such as Dixon, All-America guard Cyril Richardson and latecomers such as star tailback Lache Seastrunk -- who attended high school in nearby Temple, Texas, but transferred to Baylor after his freshman year at Oregon -- fit the slightly off-kilter personality profile Briles sought. "We wanted trailblazers," Briles said. "We wanted mavericks. We wanted guys not afraid to go down a path nobody's been down before."
The Bears are marching down that path now, and not because of an offensive scheme or a few stars. They're doing it because Briles has recruited a team that is deep enough to compete. On Thursday, Bennett rotated nine players on his front four. After Seastrunk and fellow tailback Glasco Martin went down with injuries, third-string back Shock Linwood stepped in and gained 182 yards on 23 carries. Next week at practice, Baylor will have to seek another burner to replace receiver Tevin Reese, who dislocated his wrist and will miss the remainder of the regular season.
The Bears know they can handle that piece of adversity, because like Bennett before Thursday's game, they are at peace with the work they've done to get the program to this point. They haven't forgotten their days as a Big 12 doormat. They remembered quite vividly on Thursday that Oklahoma was the last team to beat them. Now they've won 12 in a row, and they don't intend to stop. They know that the knock is they haven't beaten enough quality opponents, and they intend to win over hearts and minds one touchdown or red-zone stop at a time.
"Keep doubting," Dixon said. "We'll earn your respect sooner or later. If you want to keep doubting after that, that's your loss."