STILLWATER, Okla.—Bob Bowlsby, meet Chris Johnson. As commissioner of the Big 12, the only Power 5 conference left out of the College Football Playoff last season, you should get to know the guy responsible for causing complete chaos in your league heading into the final stretch of the regular season.
• He’s huge (6’5”, 235 pounds to be exact, which helps when he’s trying to smash through defenders on his way to the end zone)
• He was a pretty good high school quarterback (he completed 112 of 235 passes for 1,724 yards with 10 touchdowns as a senior at Bryan (Texas) High)
• He had one highlight-worthy play before Saturday, a 20-yard reception against Rice on Sept. 26, which he called the best moment of his Baylor career until Saturday night (“Big catches all the time!” cried KD Cannon when asked about Johnson’s receiving abilities. “Big body, big target!”)
Now Johnson has a few more plays to add to that reel.
Filling in for an injured Jarrett Stidham—the true freshman has a litany of injuries going into Week 13, including a back bruise, a rolled right ankle and a swollen throwing hand that forced him to sit out the second half Saturday—the sophomore Johnson completed five of 10 passes for 138 yards with two touchdowns and ran six times for 42 yards and a score. Not bad for a guy who spent five weeks as a receiver this season and who didn’t take many, if any, reps with the first-team offense last week in practice.
“Well ‘none,’ I’m not sure, but I understand that’s a better story,” drawled Baylor coach Art Briles. “He hasn’t had a lot.… But I thought he was fabulous tonight.”
Johnson went to Waco a quarterback in 2013 but moved to receiver because “we felt like he was too good an athlete to stand on the sideline with his cap on backwards,” Briles explained, a reference to his belief that two scholarship quarterbacks is enough, and he’d rather use the leftover financial aid on a lineman. Johnson moved back to quarterback when starter Seth Russell went down and the Bears had to move onto Stidham.
Granted, if you’re going to be thrown into a big game, it helps to be surrounded by All-America candidates like Cannon (five catches for 210 yards with two touchdowns), Corey Coleman (five catches for 77 yards, three rushes for 21 yards) and Shock Linwood (20 carries for 91 yards with a touchdown). That doesn’t even include Jay Lee, who caught five balls for 87 yards and was on the receiving end of Johnson’s first touchdown pass, a 39-yard toss in the Bears’ first drive of the second half.
As impressive as the passing game was—Johnson and Stidham combined to throw 396 yards and three touchdowns—what the Bears did on the ground and what they kept the Cowboys from doing was even more dominant. Baylor rushed 73 times for 304 yards and stuffed Oklahoma State’s running attack, which totaled a pathetic eight net yards on 23 rushes.
“We didn’t tackle well,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “Yards after contact were really bad.… They broke tackles and broke containment a couple of times. We’d hit them for a gain of two, and they’d fall for four or five.”
Baylor’s victory Saturday was its first in Stillwater since 1939, the same year legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was born. Other 1939 happenings: Lou Gehrig played for the Yankees, the Spanish Civil War came to an end, Batman made his first comic book appearance and a brand new car cost all of $750. It turns out the Bears were just waiting on the latest “system quarterback” to lead them to victory. And as a result, they might be back in the playoff hunt.
Now, Johnson needs to stay healthy—Baylor is pretty much out of backup quarterbacks. Asked after the game about Stidham’s health, Briles sighed and opted for truth: “Honestly, he’s not very good.” Stidham took a big hit on the Baylor sideline during a scramble and will need X-rays on his throwing hand, Briles said. The Bears limp into the final two games of the season conscious that they need to not just survive but send a message to the playoff committee. And despite a big win on the road that featured a third-string quarterback and a defense that forced seven consecutive Oklahoma State punts, Briles understands that a full statement will be made over the next two weeks.
“We tried a little bellyaching and all that last year, and it didn’t seem to work,” Briles said of his team’s fifth-place finish in 2014’s playoff rankings. “We tried some truisms, too. We’ll just keep playing …
“I think we’re in a situation where you’re not gonna eat until it’s done. You’re not gonna pull it out of the oven with 10 minutes left on the clock; you’re gonna leave it in there till it’s finished, and then you’re gonna stick a toothpick in it and make sure it’s right where you want it. Two weeks from now, I’m hoping we can be in the hunt. Right now, we’re just trying to win a conference championship.”
The Bears—and everyone else in the Big 12—now become huge Stanford fans and will hope to cheer the Cardinal onto victory over No. 4 Notre Dame next week. Baylor (at TCU next week, home vs. Texas on Dec. 5) also needs Oklahoma to fall at Oklahoma State, given the Sooners’ victory over the Bears last Saturday.
That scenario could be enough to boost Baylor into the top four. And as Johnson knows, there’s already precedence for a third-string quarterback playing clutch in the postseason and leading his team to the title. Yes, Johnson said, he can draw inspiration from Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones’s 2014 performance.
It’s still too early and there’s still too much chaos ahead to know if Johnson is the second coming of Jones. But on Saturday night in Stillwater, he got off to a pretty good start.