Baylor, the No. 12 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, received an unwanted answer to a perplexing riddle in Saturday’s regular-season finale against Texas.
Q: How many quarterback injuries does it take to completely ground the nation’s highest-scoring offense?
A: Three, especially when your last scholarship player at the position leaves the game in the first quarter with concussion-like symptoms and you play the rest of the way with a converted receiver and a collection of tailbacks taking snaps from the wildcat formation.
The Bears discovered that the hard way during Saturday’s 23-17 loss to Texas that eliminated Baylor’s hopes of heading to the Sugar Bowl. Instead, Big 12 tiebreakers will send No. 17 Oklahoma State (10-2) to New Orleans on Jan. 1. The Bears (9-3) are projected to play in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla.
TCU is probably headed to the Valero Alamo Bowl on Jan. 2 in San Antonio.
Baylor coach Art Briles called the inept offensive display, the team’s lowest scoring output since a 49-17 loss to Oklahoma State in 2013, “a disappointing situation for our seniors, our university and our football team. We just have to try and salvage the year by winning the bowl game.”
The Bears, who were undefeated and ranked No. 2 nationally on Oct. 24, staggered to their third loss in the past four games after quarterback Chris Johnson headed to the locker room following the Bears’ fourth of nine consecutive scoreless possessions to begin the game against the Longhorns (5-7).
Texas used Baylor’s early futility to build a 20-0 halftime lead, then withstood a late rally to become the nation’s only FBS team with a losing record that has posted victories over two top-12 opponents: Baylor and No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1).
“I don’t have an answer for this team. I wish I did,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said. “I wish each and every week could have been like this one.”
But the Longhorns have not had the benefit of playing depleted, one-dimensional offenses on a weekly basis. They took advantage Saturday, holding Baylor well below its season scoring average (50.8) despite surrendering 479 yards to the Bears’ piecemeal attack. Texas prevailed because it collected four turnovers and had none.
Two of the four came on first-half interceptions thrown by Baylor receiver Lynx Hawthorne, who inherited the quarterback duties after Johnson left the contest. Hawthorne completed 10 of 22 passes for 64 yards but kept a ground-bound attack viable throughout the second half with help from running back Johnny Jefferson (23 carries, 158 yards, TD).
Eventually, the lack of a viable passing threat short-circuited the Bears’ second-half rally.
“There were some mistakes that I made for sure. You take those away, and I think we win,” said Hawthorne, who took more snaps at quarterback Saturday than in any game since he started at the position as a junior in high school. “It’s still playing catch, which anybody can do. I feel like, in the first half, I wasn’t making it that. I was making it more [about], ‘Wow, there are people in the stands watching you throw the ball now, and you’re running the No. 1 offense in America.’ ”
Texas capitalized on Hawthorne’s stage fright. The Longhorns also got several big plays from quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to tight end Caleb Bluiett, scored on a 9-yard TD run and kept the offense turnover-free for the first time since a 23-9 victory over Kansas State on Oct. 24.
“This kind of shows us what we can do, what we need to do,” said Swoopes, who passed for 152 yards and rushed for 52. “It was big for us.”
But the victory will not catapult Texas into a bowl berth. It merely will prevent Baylor from playing in a traditional New Year’s Day game at the end of a season that jumped the tracks after an 8-0 start because of injuries to starting quarterback Seth Russell (neck) and backup Jarrett Stidham (ankle).
Aside from Saturday’s result, the game will be remembered for a brief, bench-clearing incident in the first quarter that coaches and referees managed to contain before it got out of hand. After throwing an interception, Baylor’s Hawthorne made a big hit on Texas safety Duke Thomas that caused both benches to empty before order was restored.
But nothing can restore Baylor’s once-promising season gone south, said receiver Corey Coleman, a junior who announced plans to enter the 2016 NFL Draft after the contest.
“That’s the crazy part. This is probably the best Baylor team that’s been here. But the record doesn’t say it,” Coleman said. “Stuff happens. It’s life. We just have to roll with it.”
The latest hit to the psyche: Baylor’s postseason roll will take place in a destination other than the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.