Before making himself available for game-day contact for the first time in 11 months because of a career-threatening neck injury, Baylor quarterback Seth Russell acknowledged one pang of concern about Friday’s opener against Northwestern (La.) State.
He didn’t want his first hit to be much of a bell-ringer.
“Definitely not,” Russell said, drawing a comparison to a high-profile former NFL quarterback who went through a similar situation after neck surgery in 2011. “You want to see how it feels. You ask Peyton Manning, and I think he was pretty nervous about the first hit. But once he got it, he felt he was ready to go.”
Russell, a fifth-year senior, had his “Manning moment” with 8:08 remaining in the first quarter of the Bears’ 55-7 wipeout of Northwestern State at McLane Stadium. It came on a zone-read play for no gain in the Demons’ red zone that looked eerily similar to the play that ended his 2015 season with a fractured C-6 bone in his neck against Iowa State.
This time, however, Russell bounced out of the pile and teammates intervened to make sure some post-whistle shoving went no further. That proved to be the only meaningful hit that Russell took on a night when he threw four first-half touchdowns and did a lot of handing off to Baylor rushers, who sliced their way through an outmanned Demons’ defense.
The Bears, in their first game since 2007 without former coach Art Briles on the sidelines, showed no lack of hustle, desire or talent in their debut under coach Jim Grobe. They were not distracted by the off-season turmoil that led to Briles’ ouster in May for his role in mishandling issues related to the school’s sexual assault scandal involving football players.
On a night that began with rumors of possible protests (they never materialized), the Bears handled their business inside the stadium. Baylor dominated the trenches and the statistics sheet, building a 48-0 lead by halftime that included this first-quarter salvo: The Bears rolled for 210 yards and allowed minus-4.
Much of that can be attributed to Northwestern State, an FCS foe that finished 4-7 last season and appears to be a long, long way from being a threat to make the FCS playoffs again this season. No. 23 Baylor took full advantage, as so many of Briles’ teams have done in bygone days, on the way to winning the team’s eighth consecutive season opener.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this team after this game. I wondered going in,” Grobe said. “When I first got here, I thought there was a lot of doubt and the kids were in shock. Tonight was huge for our guys. I feel like we’re in a good spot right now.”
But the physical mismatch made it impossible to draw many football-related conclusions beyond this one: Russell, who turned things over to freshman quarterback Zach Smith at the 2:48 mark of the second quarter, seems back to full health and ready to direct an offense that will lean on lots of runs and short passes.
Check back on Sept. 24 when Baylor opens Big 12 play against No. 21 Oklahoma State if you want an accurate reading of this team’s potential. For now, understand the Demons could not generate any pass rush, nor could they slow Baylor running backs Shock Linwood, Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty, who combined to average 8.9 yards per carry (27 carries, 237 yards) and score two touchdowns.
A rebuilt Baylor defensive line, led by nose tackle Ira Lewis, spent most of the night making plays at the line of scrimmage or in the Demons’ backfield. Until Grobe emptied his bench in advance of Northwestern State’s 45-yard touchdown march late in the third quarter, Baylor had built a 55-0 lead by allowing 27 yards on 40 snaps.
“We showed the nation the potential we have as a football team,” cornerback Ryan Reid said. “We just wanted to let everything go that had been in the background and play football.”
In terms of public displays of support for the former regime, TV cameras caught the letters “CAB” written on the right hand of Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. That stands for “Coach Art Briles,” the play-caller’s father, and Grobe said he supported the gesture. Beyond that, former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw, the man who resigned one day after announcing the hiring of Grobe, watched the first half from the stands before leaving shortly thereafter.
What McCaw and the rest of the announced crowd of 44,849 witnessed was a Baylor team that proved to be far from flat against an inferior opponent. That is something No. 9 Tennessee cannot claim, in the wake of Thursday’s 20-13 overtime escape from Appalachian State. But it’s just the first step for a team adjusting to the loss of 16 players from its spring roster in the wake of Briles’ departure.
As of Friday night, however, Baylor fans can exhale and envision this team becoming a Big 12 title contender. Just don’t put a lot of emotional energy behind those hopes until the team plays Oklahoma State on Sept. 24.