Wait, which team was supposed to come out flat and uninspired?
Having lost six straight entering the Cactus Bowl on Tuesday night, and with a coaching staff on its way out, Baylor seemingly had little to play for against Boise State.
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The Broncos, who have thrived in bowl games played in this city, were seeking a 40th win for their senior class and another Power Five conference team to add to the list of defeated foes.
But in Baylor’s 31-12 win in front of 33,328 fans at Chase Field, the Bears looked nothing like the finesse team they often have been. They proved to be plenty tough when they could have folded, frustrating Boise State in key spots and using big plays to their advantage.
Acting head coach Jim Grobe, in his final game with the Bears, was asked if he envisioned this.
“Honestly, no,” Grobe said. “I’d like to say yes to make me seem really smart, but I didn’t that coming.”
Boise State (10-3), in its 15th straight bowl appearance, fell to 11-6 all-time in bowl games and lost for the first time in four Arizona bowl games. The Broncos are 14-6 against Power Five teams since 2006.
The defeat ended a run of 14 straight senior classes with 40 wins, this group winning 39. Tuesday’s loss was the largest ever in Boise State’s postseason history, including bowls and Division I-AA/Division II playoff games.
“I did think that our guys played hard, we just didn’t come out with some of the things we needed to, execution-wise when it was all said and done,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That responsibility falls on me making sure that these guys are prepared.”
Baylor (7-6), renowned for its speed, put it on display with a strong statement to open the game, completing a 30-yard pass on the second play and racking up completions of 49, 30 and 68 in the first half, the second two being touchdowns that gave Baylor a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. Speedy receiver KD Cannon had a Cactus Bowl record 226 receiving yards for Baylor.
It wasn’t like the Broncos struggled to move the ball; they just did when the situation was most tense. They picked up 388 yards but had little success in the red zone for a second consecutive game. After scoring one touchdown on four drives inside the 20 in the regular-season finale at Air Force on Nov. 25, the Broncos did not score in four red-zone trips Tuesday.
“I think we were passing when they thought we were going to pass. We were running when they thought we were going to,” senior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck said.
In the first half, Boise State had 17- and 15-play drives that ended with a pair of Tyler Rausa field goals as they trailed 21-6 at the break. On the first drive of the third quarter, the Broncos marched 74 yards on 13 plays, but wound up with nothing, stopped on four plays inside the Baylor 10-yard line, the last three on direct snaps to a running back, a receiver, then an unsuccessful fade route.
“We’d been having success down there all year, last two games just unable to get it in,” Boise State sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien said.
Technically, the Bears punted just once as they built a 31-6 lead early into the fourth quarter, but that one turned out to change the game. Punting from his own 21-yard line in the second quarter and with a 14-3 lead, Baylor’s Drew Galitz took a mighty flop as Boise State receiver A.J. Richardson approached. Richardson never made contact, but the flag still came out.
It turned a fourth-and-5 into a first down. Nine plays later, the Bears finished off a 99-yard drive with a 5-yard JaMycal Hasty touchdown run and a 21-3 advantage.
“That was a big penalty. I’m not going to comment on the call itself, but it was a momentum-changer, yes,” Harsin said.
That 99-yard drive was set up by an Orion Stewart interception of Rypien in the end zone, which he ran out to the 1. Baylor’s first scoring drive, capped off by a Cannon 30-yard touchdown with 5:53 left in the first quarter, was set up by a Rypien interception at the Baylor 6 that was run back 13 yards.
Rypien also had a fumble he lost while running for a first down inside the Bears’ 20-yard line in the fourth quarter. That also was turned into a TD, a 14-yard strike from Zach Smith to Ishmael Zamora that made it 31-6.
“I was really going into the game hoping to be there in the fourth quarter with a chance,” Grobe said.
No side of the ball found much positivity to take out of the game, allowing 515 total yards to the Bears, and losing the turnover battle 3-1.
Boise State, in its nine losses under Harsin, have 31 turnovers in those games. They have 32 turnovers in 31 wins.
Junior running back Jeremy McNichols, who is heading to the NFL, had just 46 yards for the Broncos.
Rypien finished with 305 yards on 32-of-51 passing, but had the three turnovers that led to 21 points. He found junior receiver Cedrick Wilson for a 28-yard TD with 1:20 to play, the game well out of hand.
Boise State will head into an offseason with plenty of question marks to be addressed. McNichols departs, as does Sperbeck, the school’s all-time leading receiver (79 yards Tuesday), three starting offensive linemen and six players who started on defense in the bowl game.
“We thought this was a team that could really do something special,” junior tight end Jake Roh said.
The Broncos open next season at Albertsons Stadium against Troy, which also went 10-3 this season.