WACO, Texas — It was a surreal situation, seeing Baylor with possession and a chance to win late.
Before Saturday afternoon, not many gave the Bears a fighting chance. This was Baylor, after all. The freckled delinquent of the Big 12 South. A perennial loser since 1996. A rag doll that would present Missouri with minimal threat before the Tigers tossed them aside en route to a potential rematch with Texas in December's Big 12 Conference championship game.
Only, the Bears rewrote their role. They withstood Missouri's early offensive blows and fought back with a nasty right hook named Robert Griffin. The 6-foot-3 true freshman quarterback from Copperas Cove, Texas, came of age in the second half. He dizzied Missouri defenders with his athleticism and his mature decision-making.
Then, in an instant, his upset campaign died. With 1:40 left, Missouri linebacker Brock Christopher intercepted Griffin at the Baylor 34-yard line. The play sealed the Tigers' 31-28 victory on a day of unexpected struggle. It was Griffin's first career interception and snapped his NCAA-record streak; in 209 previous throws, he had been perfect. USC's Brad Otton held the previous mark with 202 set over the 1994 and 1995 seasons.
"They kept getting us with the bubble (screen)," Christopher said. "They had three (passes) into the hash out wide, so I scooted way out. My responsibility was in the middle of the field. I was way outside on the hash. He dropped back, and I dropped underneath the receiver. And I don't think he saw me.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said, "That's one of the better interceptions I've ever seen in my life."
Christopher's play meant Missouri's Big 12 North ambitions remain intact. Following Kansas' victory over Kansas State, the Tigers (7-2) and Jayhawks are tied for first place, each with 3-2 records in Big 12 Conference play. In the coming weeks, Missouri faces Big 12 North cellar-dwellers Kansas State (Nov. 8) and Iowa State (Nov. 15). The game against the Jayhawks on Nov. 29 could possibly decide the division.
"I wouldn't say it was a good team effort today," quarterback Chase Daniel said, "but we got it done on the road."
Baylor presented an unexpected test. Since the Big 12 Conference's inception in 1996, Baylor has been abysmal. Entering Saturday, the Bears (3-6, 1-4 Big 12 Conference) held a league-worst 12-88 Big 12 Conference record. They hadn't finished with a winning mark in the regular season since 1995 (7-4). They last appeared in a bowl game in 1994 (a loss against Washington State in the Alamo Bowl).
Before kickoff, the atmosphere at Floyd Casey Stadium suggested a sleepwalk. Its stands stood half-full at best. Conference television partners stiffed the matchup for a possible broadcast.
But by the fourth quarter, the home crowd roared. Baylor recovered from a 21-7 halftime deficit and scored 14 consecutive points. Students swung gold shirts in the early evening breeze. Everyone began to consider the improbable.
"I always tell my players, 'The longer you keep an underdog in, the stronger they get,'" Pinkel said.
"At the end of the game, it sounded like there were 100,000 people in that place."
The upset almost happened. With 2:35 left, an interception slipped through Baylor free safety Jordan Lake's grasp at the Baylor 15-yard line. Lake had an open lane to the end zone.
Missouri escaped. The Tigers avoided their first winless season against the Big 12 South. Before Saturday, the South had haunted the Tigers this year. Last month, Missouri lost to Oklahoma State and Texas, two of the top three teams in the division. The games dashed the Tigers' national championship ambitions and Daniel's Heisman Trophy prospects.
Come nightfall, Missouri left Texas a winner. The South had finally been tamed - even if it meant unexpected struggle.
"I've been doing this a long time. Good teams find ways to win," Pinkel said. "That being said, there are things we have to do to get better, and that's up to me."