After a long and hard fought season, the effort finally paid off the Baylor Bears.
It was announced yesterday that the Bears have been selected to play in the 35th Holiday Bowl against the UCLA Bruins, the Pac-12 South Division winners.
“We’re extremely excited and thrilled to be able to go to the Holiday Bowl,” Baylor head coach Art Briles said. “Anybody who’s a football fan over the years can trace back a memory or two to the Holiday Bowl experience and it’s just a great bowl game, great atmosphere, great location. It’s a good icing on a cake to a team that has worked hard to deserve a bowl game.”
This is the second year in a row Baylor will face off with a Pac-12 team in a bowl game. Last year, the Bears beat the University of Washington 67-56 at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. If last year’s bowl game is any reflection of what the Pac-12 brings, Baylor knows it will have a battle on its hands again this year.
“We know we have a great opponent in UCLA, have a tremendous amount of respect for their program throughout the years…they’ve had a tremendous season, 9-4, played in the conference championship game, won their division, so it’s a good test, a good challenge for us,” Briles said.
Before last week, most Baylor personnel, coaches, and players were convinced a bowl game in Texas would take place for the third straight year. But with the team’s stellar performance against Oklahoma State, everything changed.
“It’s been an interesting couple of weeks,” Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw said. “Going into last week we had a very different set of options that appeared in front of us and after beating Oklahoma State, all of a sudden our phones started ringing from people we hadn’t been hearing from. So our stock definitely rose significantly after that big win on Saturday.”
After the win last weekend, most of the Bears were hoping a trip to San Diego would be in their cards. Luckily for them, Santa came with an early present.
“It feels great to send these seniors out on a great season,” Baylor nickelback Ahmad Dixon said. “I think that’s something they asked for – they wanted to go out of state for their last bowl – so it feels great giving these guys something that they wanted.”
Although an out-of-state bowl game gives the players and coaches a nice change of scenery, it has many people questioning how the team with deal with being so far away and playing so close to opponent territory.
“This year we had more road games than we normally have…Coach Briles said it’s just another road game and that’s how we’re looking at it, as just another road game,” Dixon said.
To bring energy to the stadium on behalf of Baylor, the university is hoping to rally its large California alumni base. According to McCaw, California is the second, only behind Texas, in terms of number of alumni with approximately 7,000 in the area.
“All you need is enough there when something good happens that you can feel them and they can help energize you a little bit and they can also help when the opponent’s got the ball,” Briles said about playing so far away from home.
It is not a secret that Baylor struggled throughout the year – the team had a strong start, hit a big speed bump in the middle, but was able to finish strong. Much like last year, Baylor is hoping the late surge will help propel it to a second straight bowl win.
“We had a great run, winning three straight, looking for four, and it’s kind of the same thing that happened for us last year…it’s great that we peaked at the right time,” receiver Lanear Sampson said. “We kind of struggled in the middle of the year, but we peaked at the right time and [are] just trying to carry this momentum into UCLA and I feel like we will, and I feel very confident about this game.”
As far as making a name for themselves against a well-known organization on a national level, the Bears are up for the challenge and believe they will come out on top.
“We feel confident in our game, going into it, we want this momentum to roll over,” Dixon said. “Speaking for the defense, and coach Bennett and the staff, we really want our defense, the way we’ve been playing, to roll over into the game and not just show people around here, or around Texas, or people who follow the Big 12 what we’re about, but to show everybody else what the Big 12 is about.”
The Holiday Bowl kicks off at 8:45 p.m. CT on Thursday, Dec. 27th at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Until then, Briles said he will let his players take some time off for finals, but after that, it’s back to daily grind and preparing to bring the Big 12 to the west coast in winning fashion. -- Savannah Pullin