Baylor hoping to build off hot finish

In 2011, Baylor took a major step forward. But halfway through 2012, the Bears were on the verge of taking two steps back.

After falling to Iowa State in late October, Baylor opened the Big 12 with four consecutive losses. Building on the magical RGIII season seemed out the window; a bowl game, a pipe dream.

Then something happened. Seemingly overnight, Baylor transformed into the hottest team in college football north of College Station, Texas. And the Bears closed out the season winning five of six, which included a 23-point dismantling of UCLA in the Holiday Bowl.

Now, with the bulk of the defense back and an offense heavy on playmakers, Baylor is hoping it can carry over that smoking finish into 2013.

“It was big for us to finish how we did,” said junior Bryce Petty, who is taking over for Nick Florence at quarterback. “It’s been good to go into the spring and fall with confidence.”

The Bears should have plenty of that.

The last two months of the 2012 season, Baylor took Oklahoma to the wire in Norman, routed top-ranked Kansas State and dominated Oklahoma State. Then in their bowl game, the Bears jumped to a 35-7 lead over UCLA before cruising to the easy victory.

“We never lost faith,” said coach Art Briles, “and we finished playing very strongly.”

The Bears finished strong for two reasons that could also propel them this season.

First, former blue-chip running back recruit Lache Seastrunk found his stride. In Baylor’s final six games, Seastrunk rushed for 831 yards, averaged 8.1 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns. That run is why Seastrunk opened up on ESPN’s Heisman watch list, too.

On the other side of the ball, the defense finally uncovered an identity. The Bears still surrendered big yardage. But they also forced sacks and turnovers that put the offense in great positions to capitalize. With seven defensive starters returning, the Bears believe they can keep that going in 2013.

“That’s a set point for our capabilities,” said linebacker Eddie Lackey. “And the bar has been raised real high.”

The bar for the Baylor defense was pretty low. In their first four Big 12 games, the Bears allowed 70, 49, 56 and 35 points. They then gave up four touchdowns in the first half at Oklahoma.

Lackey pointed to the halftime discussion in Norman as the unit's turning point.

“In that locker room, we said, ‘It’s time to go. Time to turn this baby around,’” Lackey said. “That was a big changing point.”

Baylor played its best defense of the season that second half. The Bears forced two turnovers to start the third quarter to get back in the game, which remained in doubt until the Sooners recovered Baylor’s late onside kick attempt.

“We definitely got a spark from that game,” Lackey said. “We saw flashes of what we could do. Once we saw that, it turned our season around.”

By turning last season around, Baylor takes plenty of momentum into 2013, which could continue to mushroom; the Bears should be heavy favorites in six of their first seven games. In return, the November schedule is brutal. But if the Bears can harness what they unearthed last November? They could be a force no one wants to see late in the year yet again.

“If we start like we finished last year defensively, which I expect to, then we're going to be a very formidable opponent,” Briles said. “I can guarantee you that.”