Cactus Bowl preview: Baylor seeks upbeat finish to trying season
PHOENIX -- Baylor went through a difficult season. Key injuries. A long losing streak. The lingering shadow of scandal.
The Bears battled their way through it, earning a spot in the Cactus Bowl. Beating Boise State on Tuesday night at Chase Field (8:15 p.m.) won't erase all that's happened, but it will be something to build on.
"We've certainly had some challenges this year, but we've got a wonderful group of young men that I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with," Baylor interim coach Jim Grobe said.
Baylor entered the season reeling from the sexual assault scandal that led to the firing of coach Art Briles in May.
Grobe, a veteran of four decades in college football, took over this season. The Bears got off to a strong start, winning their first six games behind prolific quarterback Seth Russell.
The season turned with a close loss to Texas on Oct. 29. The Bears were blown out the next week by TCU and spiraled downward. Russell sustained a season-ending broken ankle against Oklahoma and Baylor closed the season with six straight losses.
The Bears (6-6) won't have it any easier against Boise State.
The Broncos (10-2) won their first seven games and were nine points from being undefeated. Boise State has a potent passing attack behind quarterback Brett Rypien and one of the nation's best running backs in Jeremy McNichols, who rushed for 1,661 yards and 23 touchdowns.
The Broncos also love playing in the desert.
Boise State burst onto the national scene at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, trick-playing its way past Oklahoma, and knocked off TCU three years later. The Broncos also outlasted Arizona at the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.
"I think it's a game people want to see," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. "It's certainly a game that's very interesting in college football."
A few more things to watch:
LINWOOD OUT: Baylor will be without its one of its running backs. Shock Linwood is preparing for the NFL, following the lead of LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. Linwood ran for over 1,200 yards each of the previous two seasons, but wasn't quite as effective this season. The senior was suspended for the Oklahoma game for disciplinary reasons and was limited to 47 yards on 14 carries in Baylor's final two games, finishing with 751 yards and two TDs. Terence Williams is Baylor's leading rusher with 945 yards and 11 TDs.
PASSING BRONCOS: Boise State had a stellar season through the air, averaging 297.8 yards per game. Rypien was the catalyst, throwing for 3,341 yards and 23 TDs with six interceptions. Boise State also had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in school history, with Thomas Sperbeck finishing with 1,191 Cedric Wilson with 1,041. Baylor was 63rd nationally against the pass and will have its hands full with the Broncos.
GROBE FINALE: Grobe will be coaching his final game with the Bears. Baylor hired Temple coach Matt Rhule on Dec. 6, though Grobe will still coach the team in the Cactus Bowl. But this will not be the end of Grobe's coaching career -- at least he hopes. "I've got to tell you, my wife, Holly, would probably be disappointed to hear you say this could possibly be my last game. She probably wouldn't be happy hearing that," Grobe said when asked about this potentially being his last game as a college coach. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles was hired as the head coach at Florida Atlantic, but will coach the Bears in the bowl game.
SMITH'S TURN: Russell's injury thrust freshman Zach Smith into a difficult position. He was a decorated high school player coming out of Grandview, Texas, but being a starting Big 12 quarterback is a huge step. Smith had some good moments, throwing for 1,151 yards and 11 TDs, but also had his share of struggles. He had a particularly rough game in the regular-season finale against West Virginia, but got an extra month of practice in to prepare for the Cactus Bowl.