WACO, Texas – Bryce Petty looked like his usual effervescent self late Sunday but for the slight slump in his shoulders.
“I feel old,” said the Baylor quarterback, who, at 23, is one of the oldest players in college football.
The daylong celebration of Baylor’s new stadium culminated in a 45-0 Bears win over SMU. Fans partied on pontoon boats that floated them to their parking spots. The Brazos River twinkled as the sun set shortly after kickoff. The Baylor defense, a punchline until the past two years, had become the second unit to shut out a June Jones-coached team. But the party cooled a bit in the first half. So why did the party seem to cool from the second quarter on?
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Because Petty didn’t look quite right. The quarterback, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate and the guy the Bears need if they hope to repeat as Big 12 champs, kept overthrowing receivers and wincing. Mustangs linebacker Jonathan Yenga had buried his facemask deep in Petty’s lower back while tackling the senior following a 16-yard run on Baylor’s first offensive possession. The resulting bruise discombobulated Petty’s throwing motion.
"That whole first half, it was kind of messing with me," said Petty, who sat the entire second half. "I couldn’t really plant and throw well enough. Things offensively kind of stemmed off that. It just got to the point where it was kind of hard to stand up."
That pain caused the Baylor offense to sputter.
"A couple passes were kind of errant. We had a couple of guys running with a little bit of space and missed them," Bears coach Art Briles said. "We knew something was wrong, because that’s not Bryce at all."
Fortunately for the Bears, they didn’t need Petty on Sunday for two reasons. First, SMU wasn’t very good. Second, Baylor’s defense might be better than last year. The Bears held the Mustangs to 67 yards on 64 plays. SMU threw for 91 yards, but thanks to eight Baylor sacks, the Mustangs rushed for minus-24 yards. Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman, a 6-foot-9, 280-pound future NFL millionaire, had two of those sacks. Nine other Baylor defenders had at least a half sack.
There are two ways for those in green and gold to look at how Sunday unfolded. The first is to worry. Without Petty, or receiver Antwan Goodley, who sat Sunday with a quadriceps injury, the offense could struggle against better defenses. If Petty is off target against an athletic defense such as the Oklahoma State group that confounded Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston at times on Saturday, Baylor’s warp speed offense can hand the ball back to the opposing offense after quick three-and-outs and put the Baylor defense at a disadvantage. No matter how good the defense is, if the offense isn’t clicking, Baylor’s system does not work. That’s how fragile a season can be for a team with high expectations.
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One painfully placed shot to Petty could change everything.
The other way to look at Sunday from Baylor’s perspective? This was unthinkable 10 years ago. The Bears opened a jewel of a stadium in front of a capacity crowd. All the tickets are sold for the entire season. There are no more tarps to cover empty seats. The offense faced issues, but the defense more than made up the difference. Even four years ago, when it seemed the Texas public schools in the Big 12 might leave for the Pac-16 superconference Larry Scott was planning and Baylor might wind up relegated to the mid-major leagues, this seemed like a pipe dream.
But it all happened. Defending champion Baylor packed its brand-new stadium and pitched a shutout. Baylor isn’t the doormat anymore. It isn’t the school about to be left in the dust by realignment. It is a major player. Sunday, Briles offered a fairly accurate mission statement for the Bears.
"We want to be a consistently respected team," Briles said, "That really tries to dominate."
Of course, the reason Baylor has started to dream bigger is because Briles won’t let his players get satisfied with packed houses or shutouts of weak mid-majors. The Bears have high expectations this year, but to reach them, they’ll need Petty. Or they’ll need backup Seth Russell, who threw for 152 yards and led the Bears to 14 second-half points, to run the offense as effectively as Petty. Or they’ll need the defense to pick up even more slack.
That will get tougher in Norman or Austin or when Oklahoma State comes to town.
"When you have our second offense in not really scoring every time they get the ball, it puts more pressure on the defense," Baylor linebacker Bryce Hager said. "We like that pressure."
The good news for Baylor is that Petty should be fine. He said he was already feeling better after sitting the second half, and he said he could have played if necessary. "But it wouldn’t have looked too well," he said.
The Bears’ next two games (Northwestern State and at Buffalo) probably won’t impress the College Football Playoff selection committee, but they should be perfect for a quarterback on the mend. Then Baylor has an open date before traveling to Ames to begin the nine-game Big 12 slog against Iowa State. There, the Bears will begin chasing another Big 12 title.
A few years ago, a description of Sunday would have fulfilled the Bears’ wildest dreams. But the group whose success built the stadium they christened with a win wants more, and they know they’ll need Petty at an optimum level to get it.