Baylor-North Carolina was exactly what anyone who tuned into ESPN at 5:30 ET on Tuesday night expected to see: Two high-powered offenses racing up and down the field with little resistance and rattling the scoreboard. The Bears and Tar Heels combined for 12 touchdowns, 1,243 yards of total offense and 87 points. In the end, Baylor pulled out a 49-38 win in one of the most entertaining bowls of this postseason.
But if this game lived up to its billing as a high-scoring, defense-optional thrill ride, it also added another data point to Art Briles’ sterling coaching résumé. The Bears repeatedly gashed North Carolina’s defense even though they were missing their leading rusher (Shock Linwood), top two quarterbacks (Seth Russell and Jarret Stidham) and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver (Corey Coleman). Without those dangerous playmakers at his disposal, Briles effectively used the Russell Athletic Bowl as a testing lab. The Tar Heels had no answers for Baylor’s direct snaps. Four Bears completed passes, and five combined for 645 rushing yards—including 333 in the first half, the fourth most by a Football Bowl Subdivision team in 2015, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The total (645) broke the bowl record, previously set by Nebraska (524) in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
So dominant was Baylor’s running game that the RAB saw fit to razz the Philadelphia Eagles over social media shortly after the team fired head coach Chip Kelly. Here’s Bears running back Johnny Jefferson dashing up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The sophomore finished with 299 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries (13.0 YPC).
There’s a perception that Baylor’s offense is a plug-and-play system that can rotate players in and out without missing a step. Tuesday’s win will reinforce that perception, but for Briles, this was less a preservation of the status quo with different personnel than a tactical adaptation to accommodate a thinned group of playmakers. Baylor ran the ball 84 times, 31.5 more than its season average (52.50), and threw it 18 times, 12.9 fewer than its season average (30.9). The process changed, but the ultimate result did not: The Bears eclipsed their season scoring average by one point. In essence, Briles orchestrated another pyrotechnics show with a less-than-ideal set of materials. That said, don’t expect to see this gameplan when Baylor is fully healthy next season.
Granted, North Carolina’s defense isn’t great, but under first year coordinator Gene Chizik it improved from 99th in Football Outsiders defensive S&P + last season to 65th this season, and from 119th to 33rd in points allowed per game.
A win in a third-tier bowl game probably isn’t what Baylor had in mind when it opened 2015 ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll and ripped off eight consecutive wins. Had the Bears not lost Russell and Stidham to injury, perhaps they’d be in Miami Gardens playing for the national title instead of Big 12 counterpart Oklahoma. But the Bears’ strong showing against a North Carolina team that would have had a case for a College Football Playoff berth had it knocked off Clemson in the ACC championship game can help allay the disappointment. Baylor outgunned one of the nation’s top squads using reserves in key spots and will enter the off-season on a positive note, with renewed confidence that Briles’ system can succeed without its best players.