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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

What The 2019 Big 12 Championship Game Tells Us About Matt Rhule’s Football Teams

June 24, 2023

It was a game of second chances and the elusive play. And as head coach Matt Rhule described it afterwards, Baylor was one step away from winning. His Bears, a season removed from 6-6 and that turbulent 1-11 first season a year beyond that, entered the 2019 Big 12 Championship as the No. 7 team in the country. Baylor faced No. 6 Oklahoma nearly a month after hosting the Sooners (then No. 10) and allowing a 24-0 second-half comeback to win. Rhule and his Bears went to Dallas to play Lincoln Riley, Jalen Hurts and the Sooners for the conference crown.

Baylor was the preseason sixth pick in the conference. Fellow conference coaches noted Rhule’s efforts to lift the Bears from potential cellar dwellers amid controversy to competitive .500 team but didn’t believe they’d do more than that. Instead, Baylor went 11-1 in the regular season with just that one loss to Oklahoma. Five of the Bears’ wins came by one score, including two that went into at least two overtimes (Baylor beat TCU in Forth Worth in triple overtime). Thus, the Bears made their first Big 12 Championship appearance and squared off with powerhouse Oklahoma with a lingering heartache remaining from the Sooners.

“We played really well at times and then obviously in the second half we couldn’t get a stop, couldn’t get a first down,” Rhule said after that first meeting with Oklahoma. “When they get on a roll, they’re really hard to stop. They’re one of, if not the, most prolific offenses in the country.

“For us, we’re gonna look back on the things we did well, the things we didn’t do well and I’m sure it’s similar for (Oklahoma).”

That’s where this football game stands for analysis. Not only is it one of the last two college football games Rhule coached, it demonstrates his philosophies, the grittiness of his team and adversity response in high-pressure situations.

A 71-yard catch-and-run from Hurts to CeeDee Lamb sprung the Sooners’ second drive and a 6-yard run by Kennedy Brooks opened the scoring. The Sooners added a 44-yard field goal on their next drive to expand their lead. Meanwhile, Baylor’s offense struggled. The Bears tallied 14 net yards of offense on their first five drives, the final of which ended in a 44-yard John Mayers field goal. Even those points were made possible by a sack-and-fumble on Hurts that Bayl Terrel Bernard picked off the turf. Just like he did countless times in Rhule’s practices. A considerable review of that play determined the ball was coming loose before Hurts’ arm moved forward and gave Baylor possession.

Then Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer left the game. Brewer was slow getting up after taking a sack and then wobbled getting up from a block. Officials told Rhule and the Bears got Brewer evaluated. He never returned to the game. In came Gerry Bohanon, who Rhule admitted after the game was ailing. Bohanon was limited by injury himself and his play suffered. He finished 4-of-15 throwing and ran for 15 yards on nine carries. This forced Rhule to get creative. Baylor was 0-for-5 on third down conversions midway through the second quarter when the Bears opted to run. John Lovett burst up the middle, bouncing off tackles for 9 yards. When Bohanon still couldn’t find his rhythm, the Bears punted. Then, as they had to that point, the Bears defense came up big with an interception. Hobbled, Bohanon found Tyquan Thornton for a 33-yard equalizing touchdown in response. Following a defensive stop, the Bears took a lead on a 28-yard field goal that capped a nine-play, 42-yard drive.

Baylor went into halftime with a 3-point lead but Oklahoma scored 16 points on their first three offensive drives of the second half. The two field goals came on 10-plus-play drives and the touchdown stemmed from four plays on the drive going at least 10 yards. During that same stretch, Baylor managed 13 yards on three scoreless drives. So Baylor’s next drive, with 10 minutes left down by 10, became pivotal. They couldn’t stand to let former SEC Freshman of the Year and national champion Jalen Hurts get the ball back when he was bidding for a Heisman season (he ultimately finished second to Joe Burrow that year).

Bohanon was no longer able to play so whatever the Bears needed to do, it would have to be with third-string quarterback Jacob Zeno. Rhule said after the game he didn’t believe Zeno could step into the moment like he did. He had confidence in the quarterback but wasn’t assured. Zeno took a sack on the first play then comfortably found Trestan Ebner over the middle. Ebner burst through an opening and outran the Sooner defense to score the 75-yard strike. It was that speed Rhule loves to recruit. Ebner committed to Baylor when Rhule was still new there. “Just his attitude, you can tell he’s an honest guy and he shoots it straight with you. He’s a great guy,” he said of Rhule when he committed. The Henderson, Texas, standout was drafted by the Chicago Bears in April. Three years earlier he caught Zeno’s fourth collegiate pass and gave his team a chance with his blistering speed.

“We never want to be one of those programs that makes excuses,” Rhule said afterwards. “And I think that carries over to the guys. Whoever is out there just keeps playing for them.”

The game wasn’t over. Hurts and Oklahoma got the ball back. The Sooners gained two first downs before the Baylor defense stiffened at midfield. Hurts tried running on 3rd and 9 but only got 2 yards. With 6 minutes left, Baylor started its drive down 3 at its own 10. A penalty forced the Bears back to their 5. Zeno, a true freshman, scrambled across the line of scrimmage before throwing. He stepped up on the next play and fired a dart to Chris Platt. Platt bounced off one defender and went off to the races. He was tackled from behind after a 78-yard gain moved Baylor down to the Oklahoma 18. When Ebner was stopped short of the sticks, Baylor settled for a tying field goal.

Hurts and Oklahoma tried to mount a response but again fell short at midfield. Baylor then took over at its own 1 with 62 seconds remaining. Under the circumstances, Rhule and his staff opted for overtime. Oklahoma scored on its first drive. Baylor could not. Their third-string quarterback took a sack on third down and his desperation heave under immense pressure on fourth down fell well short of every receiver. It was over. Oklahoma advanced to the playoff and Baylor went to the Sugar Bowl.

Rhule was asked after the game to summarize what it means to play at Baylor. The reporter asking covered Baylor under Art Briles and then witnessed the chaos that ensued after. How the Bears cobbled together a single win in 2017, elevated into a mid-tier team and watched as they nearly made the College Football Playoff. Eleven losses to 11 wins in the time it takes a freshman to become a junior. How could someone define what Baylor is after all that?

“I think you just saw it there,” Rhule answered. “I think actions speak so much louder than words and to lose Charlie and to go out there and play the way we played, to hold OU to 23 points, I think that speaks to who we are. We’re a tough, hard-nosed group, we find a way and we get better, better and better every year. This is just the beginning for us. But, I think, that was really who we are.”

Rhule left for the Carolina Panthers after the Sugar Bowl. Baylor won two games in the strange COVID season then rebounded for a 12-2 season when they reached No. 5 in the polls. The Bears went 6-7 last year. Rhule is back in college football attempting to revive another once-proud program. Once again demanding to be the hardest working, most dedicated team in college football.

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