The Baylor defense made things uncomfortable for Ole Miss all night. [Photo by Derick Hingle]
NEW ORLEANS (January 1, 2022) – The game was billed as one of those immovable objects vs. unstoppable forces affairs. Though there were extenuating circumstances, the immovable object, Baylor’s stout defense, ruled the day.
The Bears registered three interceptions – one for a 96-yard pick six – and 10 sacks of Ole Miss quarterbacks to lead seventh-ranked Baylor (12-2) to a 21-7 victory over the eighth-ranked Rebels (10-3) in the 88th annual Allstate Sugar Bowl before 66,479 in the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans on Saturday.
The victory capped an impressive turnaround season for the Bears, the Big 12 champions, and second year coach Dave Aranda, the former LSU defensive coordinator. Baylor was 2-7 during the 2020 season, facing a myriad of obstacles due to the COVID pandemic among other things.
“It’s a special group, the seniors particularly,” Aranda said. “You just see so many names and faces and come and go. You see just change and you see people demanding beliefs and motivating people in different ways. And then you see coaches that believe in this type of authority or maybe do what I say, not what I do, or maybe there’s an old school element to it. All of these things that are just difficult to address and difficult to talk about when you don’t win games. And so I think for us, the change from last year to this year was really kind of breaking all of that down and earning trust and believing in each other and being selfless.”
It was a tough night for the Rebels, who lost the catalyst of their offense, junior quarterback Matt Corral, to a leg injury in the first quarter. Corral came in as one of the nation’s top dual threat quarterbacks, averaging 328.0 yards per game. He never returned, leaving it in the hands of backup Luke Altmyer, a freshman.
Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard was relentless for the Bears defense. [Photo by Derick Hingle]
The Bears defense, nevertheless, was spectacular, frustrating Ole Miss’ high-powered offense. The Rebels were held to 332 yards, well below their season average of 506.7 yards per game. Two of Baylor’s three scores were directly attributable to the Bears defense and, specifically, the secondary.
Bears linebacker Terrel Bernard recorded 17 tackles, 11 solos, and had two of the 10 sacks to lead the way defensively. It was the most tackles in a Sugar Bowl since the 1992 edition of the Classic. He was honored as the Miller-Digby Award winner, signifying the game’s most outstanding player.
“We were definitely disappointed for their quarterback (Corral) going down,” Bernard said. “I hate to see that for him.
“Our pass rush and the pressures that (defensive coordinator Ron Roberts) was calling, a lot of them were getting home. I think causing havoc and obviously the interceptions and stuff that played a big part in the game. But just the D line causing havoc. The corners and safeties doing their part, locking up receivers and linebackers, running around and making plays. I think we had one of our best games this year.”
Bears cornerback Al Walcott returned an Altmyer interception for the 96-yard touchdown, a Sugar Bowl record which came in the second quarter. Baylor safety JT Woods picked off two Ole Miss passes during the night, including his second with 9:58 left to play that set up Baylor’s final touchdown that gave the Bears a 21-7 lead.
Braylon Sanders collects Ole Miss’ only points of the night. [Photo by Derick Hingle]
Walcott’s interception was the only score of the first half, giving the Bears the 7-0 lead. But Altmyer finally got the Rebels on the board leading Ole Miss on an impressive 72-yard, six-play drive that tied the game at 7 with 9:13 left in the third quarter.
His 37-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Sanders brought the Ole Miss crowd to life. But it was the only time the Rebels could get on the board.
Baylor regained the lead with its longest offensive of the night in the fourth quarter. The Bears drove 80 yards on just five plays to regain the lead. Bears wide receiver Monaray Baldwin took a handoff on an end around 48 yards for the touchdown and the Bears took a 14-7 lead with 11:14 to play.
On the ensuing possession, Woods picked off Altmyer at the Ole Miss 31 and returned it to the Rebels 15. Five plays later, Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon passed 2 yards to Tyquan Thornton for the touchdown and a 21-7 lead with 7:24 to go. That would be all Baylor would need to persevere.
Baylor running back Abram Smith led the Bears offensively, rushing for 172 yards on 25 carries.
Miller-Digby Award Winner Terrel Bernard. [Photo by Derick Hingle]
Though there weren’t many offensive highlights in the first half, two iconic plays defined the first two quarters of play, Corral’s injury and Walcott’s pick six.
The first came when Corral suffered his injury with 1:55 left to play in the first quarter. Facing third-and-20 at the Baylor 26, Corral scrambled to his left and was sacked by Baylor defensive lineman Cole Maxwell. Corral was assisted from the field, never to return.
On the next play, Ole Miss kicker Cale Nation missed a 49-yard field goal and the game stood scoreless with 1:48 to play. The Rebels drove from their 31 to the Baylor 16 before Corral was sacked on consecutive plays.
The Rebels next series produced Walcott’s heroics. Ole Miss took over on downs at the Baylor 40 when the Bears failed to convert on a fourth-and-2 at their 40. The Rebels then produced their deepest penetration of the half, driving to the Baylor 12 where they faced third-and-7.
Altmyer dropped to pass and threw to his left. But Baylor’s defensive lineman Jackson Kimble tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage. Walcott intercepted the pass then went down the right sideline for the 96-yard interception touchdown return that gave the Bears a 7-0 lead with 10:16 left in the first half.
Both defenses were exceptional in the first half. Baylor managed only 140 yards offensively and Ole Miss, which came into the game averaging 506.7 yards per game, to just 130 yards.