Boats cruised up and down the Brazos River flying green-and-gold flags.
Fans flooded the pedestrian bridge that spans the river, linking the Baylor campus to the new home of the reigning Big 12 football champions.
Along the way, most of Sunday’s attendees passed the larger-than-life bronze statue outside the south end zone of the man who gave the pregame invocation at McLane Stadium: Robert Griffin III, the Bears’ 2011 Heisman Trophy winner.
Griffin, quarterback of the Washington Redskins, marveled at how much things have changed since his playing days at a school that boasts the nation’s No. 10 football team in the preseason polls. That makes Baylor the highest-ranked college football team in the Lone Star State.
“I feel like Baylor is the powerhouse in Texas now,” Griffin said before Sunday’s kickoff against SMU. “But I don’t know if anybody wants to admit that. Baylor has owned Texas for a while and is No. 10 in the nation and has a chance to compete for a national championship. So, I think things are going great.”
Although alums from rival schools might want to challenge Griffin’s sentiments, nothing happened in four quarters against overmatched SMU that should lower the Bears’ value to poll voters.
Baylor started quickly, dominated on both sides of the ball and rolled to a 45-0 triumph to christen its new $260 million playpen in front of a capacity-plus crowd of 45,733. It marked the Bears’ first shutout of a fellow FBS school since defeating North Carolina State 14-0 on Sept. 16, 1995.
Quarterback Bryce Petty, the team’s Heisman Trophy candidate, threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another before shutting it down after two quarters with Baylor on top 31-0. Petty finished with 182 yards of total offense (161 passing, 21 rushing) but took a helmet in the small of his back on a first-quarter run that impacted his throwing.
Petty was diagnosed with a bruised lower back at halftime and did not return to the contest. He said he could have returned to the game, but chose to play it safe.
“It’s nothing that serious,” Petty said of the injury.
From an outcome standpoint, he was not missed.
The Bears’ defense saw to that with a stifling pass rush that collected eight sacks and limited SMU to 67 yards on 64 snaps (1.04 per play).
Defensive end Shawn Oakman brought much of the heat, collecting two of the team’s six first-half sacks. SMU went into halftime with more plays (40) than yards (39) and no snaps taken inside the Baylor 33-yard line.
The Bears, meanwhile, used a fumble recovery and a 45-yard punt return by Levi Norwood to set up a pair of first-quarter touchdown drives that covered a combined 10 yards.
Petty capped the Bears’ 24-point salvo in the opening quarter with a 46-yard touchdown strike to freshman receiver K.D. Cannon.
By that point, it was clear that no member of the Mustangs’ quarterback tandem (Neal Burcham, Matt Davis, Kolney Cassel) was going to create enough offense to dampen the spirits of a celebratory crowd that arrived hours in advance of the opening kickoff to tailgate, sailgate and revel in the unveiling of Griffin’s statue.
“The fact that we sold out of tickets so quickly is another ‘Miracle on the Brazos,’ ” Baylor president Ken Starr said, borrowing from the theme of the team’s 1974 championship season in the Southwest Conference. “We’re just in an attitude of thankfulness. I walked up here with an undergraduate who said, ‘When I set foot in the stadium on Thursday night, I cried.’ And I think those were tears of joy. This place is beyond our expectations.”
Baylor’s team isn’t bad, either. With Petty sidelined, backup quarterback Seth Russell directed two second-half touchdown drives and threw for 152 yards. The defense, a source of major consternation down the stretch last season, held the Mustangs to minus-24 rushing yards and handed SMU coach/offensive guru June Jones his second career shutout as a college coach.
“We were kind of hit-and-miss on offense. But defense is where this game was won,” said Briles, who called the victory particularly meaningful because of the program significance.
“I don’t think I’ve ever coached in a bigger game. Not one where I felt like I was so indebted to so many people working together for a cause,” Briles said. “That just makes it more special meaningful. It was a pretty good night.”
A historic one, in fact, for the Baylor football program.