As the backup to one of the most successful quarterbacks in Baylor history, Seth Russell understands his role on this year’s team.
He is the insurance policy for the Bears’ championship hopes and playoff dreams if starter Bryce Petty cannot play Saturday against No. 12 Kansas State.
No one at Baylor knew Monday if Petty, the 2013 Big 12 offensive player of the year, will be cleared by team doctors to compete against the Wildcats. The fifth-year senior sustained a concussion in Saturday’s 48-46 victory over Texas Tech.
Petty, at this juncture, needs to complete more tests to prove he is free of concussion-related symptoms before doctors can green-light his participation when No. 7 Baylor (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) meets K-State (9-2, 7-2) in Saturday’s showdown at McLane Stadium (6:45 p.m., ESPN). The winner is guaranteed at least a share of the Big 12 championship.
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A Baylor victory could push the Bears into the College Football Playoff’s inaugural four-team bracket that will be revealed Sunday.
Although Petty has declared his intent to play, he acknowledged Monday that he has yet to begin the testing process because he must first be symptom-free.
Petty woke up Monday with a headache, marking his third consecutive day with concussion-related symptoms since absorbing a helmet to the chin from Tech linebacker Sam Eguavoen during the Bears’ victory in Arlington.
“We won’t really know anything until I’m symptom-free,” Petty said. “I woke up with a little headache this morning, but the symptoms are definitely decreasing. I should be all good to go [Saturday].”
If not, Russell stands ready and willing to step into the lineup in the Bears’ biggest game of the season.
“I’m really confident,” said Russell, who threw one touchdown pass and led a fourth-quarter drive for a game-clinching field goal against the Red Raiders. “The team has my back, and I’m going to practice hard and watch as much game tape as possible.”
Russell said his performance against Tech “definitely built my confidence” because of the crunch-time points involved. It meant more to him than throwing for 438 yards and five touchdowns in a 70-6 rout of Northwestern (La.) State on Sept. 6, a game Petty missed because of a back injury.
That contest remains the lone career start for Russell, a sophomore from Garland. Baylor returns to the practice field Tuesday and Russell is prepared to work with the first-team offense if Petty cannot.
“If Bryce is feeling good, he’ll go as much as he can,” Russell said. “If not, then I’ll be out there. I’ve definitely got things I need to improve on. I left a lot of plays on the field [against Tech].”
Russell completed 8 of 17 passes for 82 yards, including a 27-yard scoring strike to Levi Norwood. But in the Bears’ final five drives, Baylor managed only a pair of field goals with Russell at the helm. What once was a 42-17 laugher became a 48-46 squeaker.
Against Kansas State, Baylor will be facing a fellow Big 12 title contender that leads the league in total defense (341 yards per game) and scoring defense (20.3 avg). Tech (4-8, 2-7), by comparison, ranks last in both categories.
That’s why Baylor fans, teammates, coaches and administrators are rooting for Petty’s quick return to health before Saturday’s kickoff.
Baylor coach Art Briles said Petty has been “better” each day since returning to Waco and coaches are “thinking he’ll be ready to go Saturday.” But with head-related injuries, it’s hard to know.
Petty was alert, witty and on point throughout an 11-minute interview session Monday. He said this was his first concussion in college, but he suffered one in high school. He knows that, even if cleared to play, a return of concussion-related symptoms during Saturday’s game means an early departure. Then, the ball is in Russell’s hands.
Russell said he’s prepared to be The Man for Baylor, if necessary.
“You always have to have that mindset, even if you’re fourth-string,” Russell said.
Briles said Baylor coaches and teammates “have a lot of confidence in Seth.” He said Russell played well against Tech “for a guy that, over the last six games, has played zero meaningful snaps.”
Against K-State, every snap will be meaningful as the Bears seek to win a Big 12 title and impress the CFP playoff committee.
Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said school officials expect to earn a playoff berth if the Bears beat K-State because of prior victories over No. 5 TCU (10-1, 7-1) and No. 20 Oklahoma (8-3, 5-3).
“We do,” McCaw said. “With the win over Kansas State, we’d be 11-1. We would be the Big 12 conference champion ... We’d be the only school among the top six that will have a win against another top-six team [TCU] and we’d have three top-15 caliber wins at that point.
“So I think we make an incredible case and it would be very hard to keep us out.”
McCaw, who recently hired a public relations firm (Kevin Sullivan Communications) in efforts to further the school’s CFP-related message, also cited a 61-58 victory over TCU on Oct. 11.
“I think head-to-head is a credible factor,” McCaw said. “That’s the whole reason why we’re having a college football playoff, to determine the champion on the field rather than using polling and computers.”
For Baylor, the lingering question remains whether the Bears will have their starting quarterback on the field in the season’s biggest game.