WACO — For Baylor, it was third-and-17 and nothing on the line but an undefeated season, surging national prestige and its spot at the top of the Big 12 standings.
The Bears were clinging to a 17-14 lead over West Virginia on a chilly Halloween night at McLane Stadium. There were only two minutes to go as head coach Matt Rhule listened to his offensive coordinator, determining the play to call.
One more first down probably would clinch a win. If not, a punt would give the Mountaineers a chance at a tying field goal or possibly a winning touchdown.
What was the best call? Stay conservative and allow the defense to save the game? Or try for a sizzling, high-risk, high-reward sort of dagger?
Rhule reached back to an old play that Tom Tubberville once used against him when Rhule was at Temple. Rhule had ordered the same play late in a game against Texas Tech last November to clinch a bowl invitation for the Bears.
Rhule wanted quarterback Charlie Brewer to throw deep and try to avoid a blitz just long enough to give receiver Tyquan Thornton enough time to pull a double move downfield. But West Virginia already had sacked Brewer seven times, so staying upright was a big ask.
Forty three yards later, Thornton made the catch. West Virginia eventually got the ball back, but only after Brewer and the offense sliced 90 more seconds off the clock and the Bears punt team killed the ball at the Mountaineers’ 5. Baylor held on for the 17-14 win.
Thursday night’s celebration of the eighth win looked the same as the previous seven victories. But the Bears (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) figured out how to win ugly against an underdog struggling under a new coach.
"Well, I love the group of guys we have," Rhule said. "They are coachable, tough, selfless. They are awesome to be around, day in and day out.
"I told them there’s a lot of teams that have had a bad loss in the last two or three weeks that would love to go back and say, oh, we found a way to win it."
It’s the first time Baylor has won a game scoring 20 points or less since 2006. Until Thursday night, it had been 30 losses in a row when the offense turned so stale that the defense couldn’t overcome the disadvantage.
On Thursday, the Baylor defense was up to the challenge. The Bears limited West Virginia to only one offensive score. That was an 83-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The Mountaineers’ other touchdown came via a 95-yard kickoff return that tied the game at 14-14 with 4:22 to go in the third quarter.
"It just just breeds excellence in general and I’m just really proud of those guys," Rhule said. "They're a tough, resilient group. We're still learning that it’s OK just to play defense and not worry if the offense isn’t clicking."
Baylor kicker John Mayers’ 36-yard field goal with 10:19 to go in the game proved to be the difference. WVU threatened late. The Mountaineers were good on a 43-yard field goal attempt that would’ve tied the game. But officials flagged WVU for a delay. Baylor defensive lineman Bravvion Roy blocked the 48-yard attempt. It represented the Bears’ fifth block of the season and ninth in their last 13 games.
West Virginia (3-5, 1-4) dropped its fourth game in a row.
"A lot of guys hurt in that locker room," WVU coach Neal Brown said. "I hurt for them. I hurt because they invested. They came up short. I don’t know if we necessarily got beat, but we came up short and I don’t mean that as a slight to Baylor."
Coming into the season, making the Big 12 championship game seemed unimaginable for the Bears. But Baylor is in control of whether it plays in December for the conference title. The Bears next play at TCU on Nov. 9, then will have consecutive home games against Oklahoma and Texas before finishing at Kansas.
Now, they must deal with rising expectations.
"You’re never as good as you are when you win and never as bad as you are when you lose," Rhule said. "We’ll just keep doing this, hopefully."