3 Plays, 1 Point, And 2 Very Different Conversations About Baylor

It’s an inconvenient part about these games people play: The score is tallied.

No matter what outside events might shape the final score, those numbers acquire a permanence which unavoidably affects the way events are remembered… and how history is written.

After the 2013 college football regular season, the Baylor Bears — as champions of the Big 12 — got blown off the field by the UCF Knights in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. On that night in the desert, the numbers didn’t tell false stories. The Bears were ambushed, clearly caught off balance by the agility and versatility of the Knights, expertly coached by George O’Leary.

A year later, Baylor looked the part of a team which — in its bowl game — knew how to handle the moment… at least for three and a half quarters. The Bears blitzed Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. After getting punched in the mouth on defense, Baylor handled the Spartans’ offense for the better part of two and a half quarters. Midway through the fourth stanza, the Bears owned a 41-28 lead and were ready to give the Big 12 its second New Year’s Six bowl win in the span of 24 hours. (TCU had demolished Ole Miss a day earlier in the Peach Bowl.)

Even when Michigan State rallied to cut its deficit to 41-35, Baylor still exhibited control. The Bears converted a third and three in Michigan State territory with under four minutes left in regulation. Chewing the clock while moving into scoring range, the Bears still maintained leverage in terms of time and score.

Then THIS happened, at 2:35:20 of the video (which is unable to be embedded).

Baylor receiver Corey Coleman took a Bryce Petty pass down to the Michigan State 1. The play represented a kill shot, almost certainly leading to a score of some kind and — in the process — a two-possession lead inside the three-minute mark of regulation. There was no holding at the line of scrimmage, no offensive pass interference from anyone on a pick play — this was not Notre Dame-Florida State. Baylor had made the final really big play in its first Cotton Bowl game in 34 years, the last one including a man named Mike Singletary in 1981 against Bear Bryant and Alabama.

Unlike that Cotton Bowl — in which the Bears were drubbed by The Bear — Baylor was about to win this game. It was pretty much a done deal. Michigan State’s remarkable run of bowl wins — two of them pulled off in highly improbable fashion (Georgia in the January 2012 Outback Bowl, TCU in the December 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) — was about to end. The Big 12, for all the controversy and disappointment visited upon the league by its clear mishandling of the College Football Playoff process and the identity of its champion, was about to strike back with two NY6 bowl triumphs, one over the SEC and now this one over the Big Ten.

Narratives — like tectonic plates — were about to shift deep beneath the crust of the college football planet.

But wait…

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Coleman — who smoked his defender, Michigan State’s Tony Lippett — didn’t even seek out Lippett’s facemask, since Lippett wasn’t in front of him. Coleman’s move to extend his left arm was instinctive, but only as an attempt to fend off Lippett. Coleman did not intend to go high on Lippett — he was just trying to find the body so he could push it away.

At the end of that sequence, you can see that Coleman — hardly trying to search out the facemask of his opponent — had his hand caught inside the facemask and could not immediately extract it. That specific visual — a player having his hand caught inside the facemask for a few seconds — is precisely what enabled the official to make the call. You don’t ordinarily see offensive facemask penalties called in college football. Something visually jarring and clear had to happen in order for the call to be made.

Baylor was the immensely unfortunate victim of the call.

Then, disaster followed.

Michigan State, given at least a partial reprieve, still needed to find a way to keep Baylor from adding a clinching field goal. Sure enough, the Spartans were able to get a quick stop, meaning that the Bears’ subsequent field goal attempt was going to be longer than 40 yards and not the chip shot Baylor had a right to expect before the offensive facemask penalty (and that was if the Bears didn’t score a touchdown first).

Michigan State busted through the line and blocked the field goal, adding a return near midfield. The Spartans didn’t merely avoid defeat — they moved closer to victory by advancing the ball after the block.

One moment after another, the Cotton Bowl’s climactic stretch witnessed an accumulation of events in which the one thing Baylor didn’t want to happen… happened.

In a sequence straight from the worst possible dream imaginable, BU coach Art Briles and his players watched this slow-motion catastrophe unfold.

Baylor cornered Michigan State one final time, forcing a fourth and 10 for a Spartan passing attack that was inconsistent all day long. Yet, the team with the lucky horseshoe in bowl games (after having absolutely no good luck at all for a very long time as a program, it should be said… this was and is a cosmic balancing-out in East Lansing) converted that fourth down and, moments later, struck paydirt for a 42-41 win.

From the Corey Coleman facemask to the blocked field goal itself; from the blocked field goal return to the fourth-and-10 conversion; from the subsequent Michigan State touchdown to the Bryce Petty interception which sealed ultimate defeat, Baylor — despite being a completely different team compared to the one that got waxed by UCF a year earlier in the Fiesta Bowl — walked off the field with another bowl loss.

Penalty. Blocked kick. Fourth-down conversion.

Three plays. A one-point loss. Two very different conversations about Baylor — the one which unfolded, and the one which never had a chance to find its way into game stories and season recaps.

Sport — it’s a cruel beast.

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Right or wrong, so much of the way the college football community reviews every season and previews the next one is based on bowl outcomes. On a broader level, the big picture often gets missed, but in microcosm, it’s very hard to argue against — or perhaps beyond — the final score, which is unforgivingly tallied for everyone.

Baylor played better than Michigan State. Art Briles and his staff coached better than the Spartans’ braintrust did. Yet, a crazy collection of improbable events led to the second fourth-quarter comeback of at least 20 points in the entire 2014 college football season.

The other one? The comeback Baylor pulled off against TCU in that 61-58 thriller.

You live by the 20-points-or-more fourth-quarter comeback, you die by it.

Baylor suffered the cruelest cut of all in the Cotton Bowl, enduring a most bewildering journey littered with contradictions. A team that played so well for the majority of a showcase bowl game did not win it. A team which resided in the ramshackle dwellings of college football inepitude for decades had risen to the top of the heap in the Big 12 for two straight years, vanquishing the likes of Oklahoma and Texas and other schools which had stood above the Bears for so many seasons. Yet, that supremacy in the Big 12 could not comfort the Bears in their moment of supreme and overwhelming heartbreak on New Year’s Day in Arlington, Texas.

Baylor is the program that has climbed higher than anyone else in college football over the past five years — the Bears are Duke, only with conference championships and New Year’s Six bowl appearances instead of merely nine-win seasons and Sun Bowl trips. Yet, for all Baylor has done, two very different bowl losses have left the Bears without that crowning national moment other programs have been able to savor over the past two seasons.

As 2015 arrives, will Baylor take that final elevated step and reach the College Football Playoff, or will that Cotton Bowl collapse take on a life of its own this season?

We’re all waiting to find out. It’s going to be one of the dramas that will make the new season so compelling.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |

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