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Brice Cherry: Live it up, Bears, you earned this championship party
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Brice Cherry: Live it up, Bears, you earned this championship party

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Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard shows off the Big 12 championship trophy following the Bears' 21-16 win over Oklahoma State.

ARLINGTON — Take a bow, Dave Aranda. Link arms with your players and revel in the applause.

Sure, that next-game, stone-faced mindset is ingrained in your coaching lifer DNA. But take a moment to enjoy this, Dave. Crack a smile, for goodness’ sake. You and your plucky, frisky, ahead-of-schedule Baylor Bears deserve a curtain call.

From 2-7 to Big 12 champions? Go ahead. Let the ovation wash over you. It’s fully earned.

Even if you almost gave it away. Even if it came down to the length of a football, maybe less. Seriously, if Oklahoma State’s Dezmon Jackson had been 6-foot-1 instead of 5-foot-11, the Cowboys probably would’ve been CFP-bound.

As television dramas go, this one ranked right up there with all the greats like Hill Street Blues, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. After saving the day and saving the day and saving the day, Baylor’s resilient defense stepped up one final time and — guess what? — saved the day once more.

It was all set up for the Cowboys to play the role of bandits and steal the trophy away in the end. Oklahoma State needed one yard to win the game. One measly yard, which coincidentally is what Baylor’s own offensive unit totaled in the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys got the ball to Jackson in space, with Baylor’s sixth-year, former walk-on defensive back Jairon McVea trailing him. Jackson sprinted for the pylon like a madman. McVea, who had already delivered the game of his life, never stopped running, never slowed his pursuit. Jackson stretched out for the goal line as McVea shoved him out of bounds a yard short. Not even, really.

Ball game. Baylor wins, 21-16. Bring on the commemorative caps and T-shirts, Bears. You’re the Big 12 champs.

Pretty unbelievable, right?

Well, it’s hard to fathom to everyone not inside that rowdy Baylor locker room anyway.

“It has been a real treasure for me just to see the growth of our team off the field and how that relates to on the field, so that we can win those hard-to-win games,” Aranda said. “I think today was an example of it.”

The Bears’ growth was laid bare on Jerry Jones’ rug for all the nation to witness on Saturday. This Baylor team is far from perfect. But it’s a tough football team. It’s a mature football team. And, Lord knows, it’s an aggressive football team.

Yeah, let’s (again) address Baylor’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 (again) in the Bears’ own territory (again) with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter, a veritable lifetime to play. Forget conventional wisdom. Common sense says to put the ball away. You’re leading by 15 points. Your defense is eating Spencer Sanders’ lunch and then lapping it up some more when he regurgitates the ball (again). The safe, smart play is to punt.

But Baylor’s gonna Baylor, and this time it didn’t work, as Blake Shapen tossed the ball away while under pressure from Oklahoma State’s fire-breathing pass rush.

Is it possible for me to criticize Baylor’s decision and admire the Bears’ stubbornness all at once? Because that’s where I’m at with this one. Personally, I hated the call (again). I’m not paid to coach, but I definitely would’ve punted in that situation. And no one can deny that the game turned in that moment, as the Cowboys drove the field for their first touchdown, pulling within a touchdown and a two-point conversion of tying the game. They seized the momentum in a mighty way.

Baylor OUST

Baylor tight end Ben Sims celebrates  the Bears' 21-16 win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 championship game on Saturday in Arlington.

Yet the Bears have fully committed themselves to being who they are, and if you’re new around here, allow me to introduce them. They’re a hard-nosed, audacious bunch that refuses to shrink from a challenge. Doesn’t matter if that challenge is the offense going for it on 4th-and-1 from its own 36 or if the challenge requires the defense stopping the other guys on 4th-and-1 for the whole, dadgummed ball game.

I can respect that steadfastness. Be you, BU. Because, honestly, the Bears never reach this point, never put themselves in position for a championship, if they shrink from that attitude.

It’s not supposed to be easy, not in Bear Country anyway. Baylor backers must have the highest blood pressure rates of any fan base in college football. It’s almost as though the Bears said, “Yeah, our fans are far too relaxed right now. We don’t do blowouts. They can exhale when they’re dead.”

In their bright orange and white uniforms, the Cowboys resembled a collection of traffic cones. That was Oklahoma State’s first mistake. Baylor knows how to navigate such encumbrances, living in the Land of Perpetual Highway Construction.

In this battle of two of the feistiest defenses the Big 12 has served up in years (maybe ever?), Baylor’s greedy pigskin hunters bested OSU’s salivating sack attackers. Yes, Shapen played great in just the second start of his career. Seventeen straight completions to open the game boggles the mind. I’m convinced the guy could throw a dart through a keyhole on his first try. But Baylor still built its 21-6 halftime lead on the backs of its takeaway-happy defenders, who routinely gave the ball back to Shapen and the offense with short fields.

Then, in the second half, Baylor’s D stepped up when the offense bogged down. Jalen Pitre, Terrel Bernard, Matt Jones, Apu Ika, the whole lot of them delivered a heroic effort even when forced into borderline unfair situations.

“We attack the ball every single day,” Bernard said. “We were getting pressure on the quarterback, forcing him to make contested throws and try to fit things into tight spaces. We were in the right place at the right time sometimes, came up with it, and I think that changed the game.”

Of course, no turnover loomed larger than the last one of the day, that final OSU turnover on downs. Remember Super Bowl XXXIV, when the Rams stopped the Titans one yard shy of the goal line to win the Lombardi Trophy? This play was even closer.

Game of inches? More like game of heart attacks.

Unless your name is Dave Aranda, of course. The TV cameras actually caught Baylor’s unflappable second-year coach in the moments just after McVea’s game-saving, title-clinching tackle. He didn’t yell, didn’t cheer, didn’t even break that stoic, Landry-esque expression that creases his face about 90 percent of the time.

Asked after the game if he ever really cut loose, Aranda answered, “I did not.”

But don’t mistake his subdued demeanor for apathy. Aranda couldn’t be more thrilled for his guys. He said in the moments after this historic championship win, he thought back to last year, when he often couldn’t meet face to face with his players and conducted many a video chat meeting. He thought back to the way that 2020 season ended, with a 42-3 soul-crushing loss to these same OSU Cowboys. He thought about all the guys that stuck around to get this chance.

And his soul rejoiced.

“For the guys that stayed … it’s very strong (feelings) and it means a lot to me,” Aranda said. “For the staff that came, from the outside I’m sure it looked really bad, so for them to come, I thank those guys. I think of the opportunities for the vets to come back. I think of the opportunities for our coaches. So, I’m happy for them.”

Live it up, Dave. Party on, Bears. In whatever form that takes, it’s well deserved.

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