WACO, Texas — It’s tough being the man to replace The Man.
It’s especially tough when The Man took the program to new heights, became a national star, won a Heisman Trophy and was the second overall pick in the NFL Draft.
But Baylor senior quarterback Nick Florence acquitted himself quite well Sunday evening, making his first post-Robert Griffin III start for the Bears. Florence threw for four touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of SMU at Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium.
And while no one is clamoring to use Florence’s initials to come up with a nickname like RG3, he showed that the Bears are in very capable hands even without Griffin.
Florence’s solid play Sunday really shouldn’t come as a surprise. He started seven games in 2009 when Griffin was injured, throwing six touchdown passes. But the last two seasons netted Florence just 24 attempts as Griffin’s backup.
He nearly matched that total in the first half, as he completed 15 of 22 passes for 208 yards. He finished with 341 yards on 21-of-30 passing and watched the fourth quarter from the sidelines as the Bears had the game well in hand.
“I think it was a great first start,” said Florence. “I want to be better. I threw some incompletions but I think it was a great first start. For me, I couldn’t ask for a better situation to step into. The guys are playing with a lot of confidence and we’ve got a lot of playmakers. We’ve got bigger goals and that’s what we want to keep working towards. It was a great first start but we want to get better.”
While Griffin wasn’t at the game, he was certainly paying attention. He sent Florence a text before the game and was on Twitter during Baylor’s 10th-conseutive victory over SMU.
“He told me to be myself,” Florence said. “I learned a lot from Griff. He’s done a lot for our program. It goes to show that our coaches are recruiting great players. Griff’s done a lot for us. Just because he leaves doesn’t mean anything happens here.”
It took just one possession for Florence to get the Bears on the board. Baylor took advantage of four SMU penalties to keep the drive alive and Florence capped it by hitting Lanear Sampson for a six-yard touchdown.
Baylor’s second possession ended the same way as the Bears went 74 yards and Florence ended it with a five-yard touchdown to Jordan Najvar. A 50-yard touchdown pass to Tevin Reese was his final TD of the first half and he added a 36-yarder to Lanear Sampson in the third quarter as the Bears rolled out to a 52-10 lead.
While Florence, who also ran for 24 yards, isn’t going to make anyone forget about Griffin, he believes he’s only going to get better. It’s a sentiment shared by Baylor head coach Art Briles.
“Nick was Nick,” Briles said. “Nick’s going to be that way every time he steps on the field. He’s an intelligent, passionate, driven player that places himself second. Honestly for him percentage wise, it was a little low. He was 21 for 30. Through practices, all through fall camp and spring ball, he was in the high 80s (completion percentage).”
The Bears also showed Sunday that Florence doesn’t have to shoulder the load by himself. While the Bears lost Griffin and receiver Kendall Wright, who was also a first-round pick, four of the top five receivers from last year are back. Florence made sure and utilized all of them, with Terrance Williams catching seven passes for 138 yards and seven other Bears making at least one catch.
Baylor may have also proved that just because Griffin isn’t in Waco doesn’t mean the offense will struggle.
“Nothing happened when Griff left and it was a big thing for our offense to show that,” Florence said. “We’re still the same offense. We’re still going to put points on the board.”
Maybe more important than Florence’s outing was the play of the Baylor defense. Baylor allowed at least 24 points in each of its final 11 games last season and gave up an average of 37.2 points. But SMU, which has its own high-profile quarterback in Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert, didn’t score a touchdown until there was less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Baylor made big plays defensively too. Up 14-3, the Bears got a big turnover on an interception from Eddie Lackey when SMU was on the verge of scoring in the second quarter. Three plays later Florence found Reese on the 50-yard score.
The first score of the second half was also courtesy of the defense as Mike Hicks returned a fumble 66 yards making it a 31-3 contest.