Baylor seizes its big moment

Bryce Petty waited way too long for this moment. How long? It started in high school, where he wasn’t a top quarterback recruit. He signed to play for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee, but before Petty got there, Fulmer was replaced by Lane Kiffin.

So Petty waited for Kiffin to call and say that Tennessee still wanted him. But Kiffin never called. Tennessee didn’t want him. And Petty found his way somehow to Baylor, where he waited behind Robert Griffin III, and then Nick Florence.

That’s why is seemed natural that he was a little shaky at the start of Thursday’s game against Oklahoma, which Baylor won 41-12. Baylor, No. 6 in the BCS standings and in its biggest moment, maybe ever. Petty was nervous, too amped up, missing passes. He was . . .

“Yes, thank you,’’ he told me after the game, laughing sarcastically. “I’ve got to get better at that.’’

By the middle of the second quarter, he was fine. He led a 93-yard drive that turned the game. Before that, the whole Baylor team was overly worked up. It wasn’t just Petty.

You wait forever for your big moment, and work for it, and prepare for it, and then it comes and you still somehow find yourself out of your element. It was true for the players, and, in a strange way, for the fans, too.

Baylor needed this to prove not only to others, but also to itself.

“With all the hype brought in,’’ he said. “The first time that a top-10 team (played) against another one here.’’

On a day when the BCS showed that it is going to give us one last perfect chaotic storm, Baylor kept its head. No. 5 Stanford beat No. 3 Oregon, keeping No. 2 Florida State into position to play No. 1 Alabama in the national championship game.

But after that, Ohio State, Stanford, and now Baylor, too, can all make the case that if one of the top two loses, they would be deserving of the title game.

It’s just so hard to think of Baylor in that big national picture. The Bears always have a tarp over the stands in one of the end zones here to cover up all the empty seats. They took the tarp off Thursday.

Because this turned out to be one of those growing-up moments for a program. Baylor has had RGIII, but now it has a top program, a sold-out stadium and a signature blowout win over Oklahoma.

“Nobody’s going to believe you until you do it,’’ Baylor coach Art Briles said. And this is his crazy offense, his creation.

Baylor isn’t exactly a re-enactment of Hoosiers. After RGIII won the Heisman following the 2011 season, the money started flooding into the place. They have a smashing new stadium going up for next season on the Brazos River, where fans will be able to go sail-gating before games.

But look at the teams in the title picture, and Baylor doesn’t have the tradition of Alabama, Florida State or Ohio State. It doesn’t have the name cache of Stanford, or the IV direct pumping money from Nike the way Oregon does.

For now — and this makes the emergence feel right somehow – they are playing in a 63-year old Floyd Casey Stadium. Hardly any signs directing anyone to parking, and an old rickety stadium without bells or whistles.

For now, this place has the feel of a community, almost like a massive high school program.

The truth is that when Heisman talk started with RGIII a few years ago, no one here really believed it. And the team already had two losses.

This win over No. 10 Oklahoma was the defining moment for Baylor. The Bears had been putting up record points, 63.9 per game, and that all seemed kind of cute when they did it against Wofford and Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe. Even Iowa State.

But Baylor stayed on the outside of the national title race, behind Ohio State based on spec. Voters weren’t sure about Baylor.

And the truth is, Baylor’s players and fans weren’t positive, either. After the game, fans ran onto the field, and threw footballs around, or just hung out. One guy was throwing a ball to his young son, maybe 4 years old.

“This was the first real team we’ve played,’’ the man said. “Oklahoma always beats us (now 21-2 all-time), and they come into a game like this thinking they were going to do it again. I think we were all a little worried we were going to choke.’’

Earlier in the week, I talked to tailback Lache Seastrunk about Baylor’s only semi-test of the season, against semi-decent Kansas State. Seastrunk, a Heisman candidate, wasn’t good that day, and Baylor had to come from behind in the fourth quarter.

Seastrunk told me he was nervous in the moment. A few other players told me the same thing.

This program just isn’t used to big moments yet. You have to grow into them. That’s what happened Thursday.

The defense was good from the start. Petty took a little time to settle down. Seastrunk left the game for a while after straining a groin muscle — and told me after the game, “I’m fine,’’ then limped past, sat down, yelled out and grabbed his leg. And backup Shock Linwood ran for 182 yards.

By the middle of the second quarter, Oklahoma top defense wasn’t slowing Baylor’s offense anymore.

And the great thing was when it was over, and fans came onto the field, and players hung around with them, signed autographs, took pictures.

Everyone there had won.