TCU-Baylor shootout demonstrates what college football is all about
Baylor's wild win over No. 14 TCU reminded us why football can be such fun
It was a roller-coaster victory marked by a blown lead and a last-gasp rally
But the win was dampened by news that Oklahoma could also leave the Big 12
WACO, Texas -- It certainly made for riveting television. Hopefully plenty of you tuned in. But if only you could have stood on the field of Floyd Casey Stadium late Friday night as a sea of Baylor fans celebrated their team's biggest win in 20 years.
As soon as Mike Hicks' last-second interception sealed the home team's frantic 50-48 upset of reigning Rose Bowl champion TCU, green-clad assistant coaches jumped in joy, elated students rushed on to the turf and Hicks' mother, surveying the mob scene for sight of her son, tears dotting her eyes.
This was college football -- wonderfully wild college football -- exactly the sort we'd been waiting to return these long eight months. All the seediness and scandal that dominated the news last spring and summer has not gone away, but for one sultry Texas night, an upstart program and its transcendent quarterback reminded us why this sport can be so fun.
"Those are classic games," said Baylor coach Art Briles, who took the Bears to their first bowl game in 16 years last season and started this one with another milestone. His team nearly blew a 47-23 fourth-quarter lead, falling behind 48-47 with 4:27 left, but a 37-yard Aaron Jones field goal put Baylor back ahead with 1:04 remaining, and Hicks picked off TCU quarterback Casey Pachall at the Bears' 18 on the final play of the game.
It was just one win, but it's never too early for a field-storming, especially at a school where these moments have been few and far between.
"It's a national stage," said Baylor star Robert Griffin III. "People on national TV got to see us beat a ranked opponent for the first time in probably a long time."
Unfortunately for Baylor, even its greatest night since joining the Big 12 came with a caveat. In short: The Big 12 might not be around much longer.
Around the same time these teams kicked off Friday night, the college football world was abuzz over comments from Oklahoma President David Boren indicating the school is actively considering an exit from the increasingly tenuous conference. Reports indicate OU and Texas have renewed discussions from last summer with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, with a decision coming quickly.
"It might be a matter of 72 hours, it might be a matter of two weeks," Boren told reporters Friday. "I don't really think this is something that is going to linger on beyond two or three weeks at the outside."
None of that seemed particularly pertinent for four hours Friday night while the nation got to see Griffin -- or RG3, as he's known in these parts -- put on a performance that will surely land him on Monday's updated Heisman rankings.
In a stunningly dominant performance -- 21-of-27 completions for 359 yards and five touchdowns -- Griffin lit up a TCU team that's led the nation in total defense for three straight seasons . His throws were laser-like and (it appeared) effortless, from a 35-yard touchdown dart to top receiver Kendall Wright in the first quarter to a 64-yard floater to Lanear Sampson and 42-yard fade to Terrance Williams in the third.
Just a year earlier the Frogs held the Bears to 263 total yards in a 45-10 rout in Fort Worth. This time, Baylor racked up 34 points and 360 yards against the 14th-ranked Frogs by halftime -- and that was before Griffin threw his two longest touchdowns. The Bears finished the night with 564 total yards.
But no college thriller is complete without some adversity for the protagonist. After Pachall led TCU back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns -- in his first college start, no less -- to cut it to 47-45, Griffin nearly committed the ultimate blunder. On a first-down rush from his own 25-yard-line, Horned Frogs defensive end Stansly Maponga stripped the ball from his clutches, then beat several Baylor players to the sideline to recover the fumble. TCU kicked the go-ahead field goal shortly thereafter, mounting the biggest comeback to take a lead in coach Gary Patterson's 12 seasons.
"I was sitting there [on the sideline] for a good three to four minutes, in a hole," said Griffin. "I didn't want us to lose the game because of me."
Among those there to lift him up were his top receiver, Kendall Wright, who had an epic night of his own. The senior caught 12 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns and, for Baylor's first score, caught a screen pass, turned and threw a 40-yard touchdown of his own to fellow wideout Terrance Williams.
"He should never have his head down," said Wright. "I told him, 'You're RGIII, you're up for the Heisman. This is when legends are made.'"
And in fact, the two of them hooked up soon enough for what will go down as a legendary Baylor moment.
Facing third and 10 from its own 20, struggling desperately to regain momentum, Briles called for Wright to throw another pass -- this one to Griffin straight up the middle. "I'm about to get hit real hard," the quarterback thought when he heard the play call. "But at least I was prepared." Indeed, he hauled in the catch for a 15-yard gain and a first down. He then completed an 11-yard throw to Wright to continue their march toward Jones' field goal.
Clearly, Patterson's usually stingy TCU defense sorely misses its four departed starters from last year's secondary. Griffin and Wright spent much of the night picking on juco transfer cornerback Jason Verrett, a sophomore seen whiffing on several long completions, and redshirt freshman safety Sam Carter. The performance certainly doesn't bode well for TCU's later matches against Boise State's Kellen Moore and San Diego State's Ryan Lindley.
But Patterson also had to be encouraged by the resilience of Pachall, who finished the night 25-of-39 for 251 yards and four touchdowns before throwing the dagger interception.
"We played so badly on defense, especially at the corner position, that we just couldn't overcome it," said Patterson. "... But after having Andy Dalton for four years, and to have a guy coming in against a Big 12 team in their house and do what he did, I was very happy."
Meanwhile, Baylor seemed to take most satisfaction out of avenging last year's TCU blowout. "We weren't really counting this game as 2011," said Briles. "We felt like we had to right a wrong. Our  season starts tomorrow." With its next four games coming against Stephen F. Austin, Rice, Kansas State and Iowa State, that 2011 season could well get off to a 5-0 start, though its defense and, most pressingly, its kick and punt coverage (TCU had 286 yards in returns) needs some work if it hopes to improve on last year's seven-win total.
Even as Briles continues the program's remarkable turnaround, Baylor's progress could soon be stunted by off-field developments. TCU is already headed to a conference with Pittsburgh and Providence, while Texas A&M's decision to bolt for the SEC could set off a chain of dominos that leaves Baylor in the Mountain West or Conference USA. Thus, the ugly business side of college football still hovered over this otherwise celebratory night in Waco.
"It was a great day for Baylor football," said AD Ian McCaw. "It was a bad day for the [Big 12] market."
So enjoy this night, Baylor. Soak it in. And revel in the wonders of a star like Griffin. Players and games like this don't come around often. We need them to take our minds off the other stuff.