A dominant first half gave way to a shockingly terrible second half as the Texas Longhorns needed a late fumble recovery on a 4th and 4 converted by the Baylor Bears to avoid an inexcusable loss with the 23-17 win in Waco on Saturday to end the season.
The offense wasn't able to completely put the game away by failing to convert on the fumble and Baylor threatened with several long running plays. But with no timeouts and after a wide receiver pass meant to go to emergency quarterback Lynx Hawthorne, Baylor eventually fell short of the touchdown needed to win the game.
Texas dominated in the opening frame thanks to a big 57-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to junior tight end Caleb Bluiett and a Swoopes touchdown run to take advantage of a Bears fumble deep in Longhorns territory.
The most important play, however, was probably the one that injured Baylor quarterback Chris Johnson and knocked him out for the game, as the Bears entered the season with only three scholarship players at the position and had to move former high school quarterback Lynx Hawthorne to the position from wide receiver.
After allowing Hawthorne to attempt 13 passes in the first half, Baylor came out in the second half with a much better game plan, using a single-wing offense behind its physical offensive line to consistently blugdeon Texas on the ground and only attempting five passes until the final drive.
Those passes somehow came against a defense that was allowing big cushions to the Bears wide receivers despite the fact that Hawthorne threw two interceptions in the first half when he tried to throw the ball downfield. Huh?
For some inexplicable reason, Texas spent a great deal of time in an odd front with a deep safety against the run-heavy Baylor offense and, shocker, it didn't work so well. The handicapped offense stayed out of the killer long down-and-distance situations that would have sunk it and scored 17 points on the first three possessions of the second half.
The injuries certainly played a role, as several players went down in the second half in addition to the starters who were already out, but for a defensive coach like Charlie Strong, the strategy was completely perplexing. With no threat of a pass, the defense consistently committed major resources to defending players who weren't involved in those plays and honored the threat of a long play with that deep safety. Huh?
Meanwhile, the offense went into hyper-conservative mode with a hobbled Tyrone Swoopes after abandoning an ineffective Jerrod Heard in the first half. The offensive line consistently lost battles to the good Baylor defensive line as the running game stalled with the breakout star from the Texas Tech game, freshman Chris Warren, having little to work with.
One of the most perplexing plays was a fourth-down call for Swoopes that was easily stuffed by Baylor, though Jay Norvell also got criticized for throwing the ball in a similar situation earlier in the year. The difference in this game was that Swoopes and the offensive line had gotten nothing going in those looks, so hitting the play-action pass would have made tremendous sense because the defense wasn't prepared for it.
Norvell eventually proved that point by converting two third downs in that manner on a subsequent possession and, fortunately, the decision ultimately didn't cost Texas the game.
Especially on the defensive side of the ball, there are serious concerns about the non-adjustments made by Strong and his staff, but there is some offseason momentum now and something positive to sell on the recruiting trail, like this, for instance:
TEXAS (5-7) has more Top 15 wins than Alabama, Ohio State, Iowa, & UNC -- COMBINED— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) December 5, 2015
Those are good things.
So even though the circumstances of the game killed a lot of the good feelings from the first half, the final result remains the same -- Texas went on the road against a heavily-favored opponent and came out with a win despite having nothing to play for and numerous starters sidelined by injuries.
The team played hard, it was more disciplined and more tough than Baylor in the first half, and did enough to win in the second half.
Now it's time for Strong to get the offensive coaching staff hires right and land the recruits he needs to improve tremendously next season.