I’ll confess. I really wasn’t looking forward to going to that football game in November.
The real purpose of the trip to Waco, Texas, was my 40th college reunion at Baylor University. The special time was seeing friends, former professors and old hangouts plus new things to see and experience. And I noted that tailgating has gone from being non-existent (and too much trouble) in my day to a really big deal at Baylor, like so many places in college football.
Post-RG3, Baylor was in the midst of a downer season. After a close, shootout loss to West Virginia, in a game where defenses took a holiday, the Bears had gone into a funk and were not playing very well.
The weather was threatening that afternoon and I thought about passing up the game and leaving early.
I’m glad I didn’t. I witnessed a transformation that redefined a season. I learned a little about modern football, psychology and resiliency.
In a game that had a 45-minute lightning delay, Baylor manhandled Kansas, which on the surface is not much to brag about. But I saw a team that discovered a running game to go with its point-a-minute passing attack and was beginning to learn how to reasonably stop the run. My neighbor in the press box, from Temple, Texas, informed me that running back Lache Seastrunk, a transfer from Oregon and a five-star high school back at Temple, was making his first start and had the potential of being a bigtime back. Certainly, he helped ravage the KU defense that day.
I left the press box that evening musing that a Baylor team on a nosedive wasn’t a bad football team.
The Bears, with only flickering bowl hopes at the time, won five of their next six and their last four, including a victory over No. 1 Kansas State that probably cost the Wildcats a national title shot and a dominating 49-26 victory over a 17th-ranked, nine-win UCLA team in the Holiday Bowl. The Bears held UCLA, a powerful rushing team, to 33 net yards. The Bruins’ Johnathan Franklin, UCLA’s career rushing leader, gained 34 yards, 22 after his first carry. Baylor were statistically the worst defensive team in the country, but were fairly effective down the stretch because of their improved running game. They played better than the surface stats indicated.
That homecoming week in November, the Smithsonian folks, through their research, had officially proclaimed that homecoming football games originated at Baylor, contrary to the longtime claims by Missouri. Technically, Baylor had the first homecoming; the folks didn’t officially call it that.
So, maybe it was the excitement of what is annually the biggest homecoming extravaganza in the nation, one that now, ironically, the football game is sometimes an afterthought. Maybe something clicked with the team. Maybe it was player leadership. Maybe it was the right opponent at the right time. Maybe it was desperation to salvage a season. Maybe coach Art Briles, a coach high on several wish lists who has made a longterm commitment to Baylor, is pretty good at motivating young men and holding things together. Maybe it was all of the above.
Just as I witnessed when UCA walked a tightrope to win seven straight games in 2011 after a 1-3 start, a ship can be righted in tumultuous waves.
I mention this now because I learned anew that so many things can change over the course of an athletic season and sometimes there’s a fine line in a reversal of fortune. Things can flame up and flame out over a whole bunch of big and little things, tangible and intangible. It’s wonderful and fun to see the upside, terribly frustrating to witness the downside.
And in the modern, spread-it-out, throw-it-all- over-the-lot era of football, a timeless maxim was again reinforced.
Good teams, teams on the rise, top-level teams, championship teams have to be able to run the ball (at least reasonably effectively) and stop the run on defense, at least in a few key situations. That, fundamentally, is what helped turn Baylor’s season around. That’s how a revived UCLA team got blitzed.
Baylor, like Oregon and several others in the Big 12, plays at a super-fast pace, nearly 100 plays a game or more and often scoring drives are under a minute.
At that pace, the defense doesn’t get much rest (Alabama’s Nick Saban likes for his defense to be off the field for at least four minutes). The defense gets even less rest when the other team is playing at a similar pace. Track meets have to be dotted with distance runs. Everything in life is not a sprint
The good teams who play that fast need a strong running attack to be able to change the pace and slow the tempo down and run clock when a trot is needed instead of a sprint. Good defenses have trouble stopping the run and the power game if all they see is finesse and average backs in practice.
Modern football is played at different tempos and a really good team usually needs to play at different paces, using different tools and strategies when needed.
That said, I think the winner of the Alabama-Notre Dame game will be the one that can switch to a faster pace at the key junctures.
I thought I was taking a busman’s holiday for that reunion weekend.
But I may have learned as much about football as a casual observer as I would if I were actually covering a game.
A FOOTNOTE: Another fine job in a challenging situation was done by former UCA assistant Chris Thomsen, who served as interim head coach of Texas Tech during the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Minnesota. Thomsen took over a fragile situation after Tommy Tuberville’s sudden departure for Cincinnati, one so abrupt he reportedly excused himself from three potential recruits in a Lubbock restaurant and never returned.
In one of the chippier bowl games, Thomsen held the Red Raiders together was they took a 34-31 overtime victory over the Gophers.
In a confrontation of two so-so teams, the bowl game was far from many’s must-watch list. But the degree of difficulty Thomsen faced was pretty high and his steady hand paid off.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)