-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Both Washington and Baylor ended long bowl droughts in 2010 and both kept the positive momentum going in 2011. Baylor lost 38-14 to Illinois in the Texas Bowl last year after not seeing postseason play since 1994. The Huskies topped Nebraska 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl last season in its first bowl game since 2002.
Much of the credit for each turn around belongs to two rising stars in the coaching profession. In his fourth season in Waco, Art Briles, with a little help from Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, has Baylor in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-1992 — which is also the last time the Bears won a bowl. He carries a five-game winning streak into the Alamodome.
Steve Sarkisian is in only his third season in Seattle, and while he doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy winner under his belt, he has restored Husky Pride to the Pacific Northwest. He capped his season with his third win in three tries over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. With two great offensive minds on the sidelines coaching two rosters loaded with offensive skill talent, the 2011 Alamo Bowl figures to feature plenty of fireworks.
WHEN BAYLOR HAS THE BALL:
It’s all about Griffin III. Or more specifically, how does Washington stop him? The reigning Heisman winner led the nation in points responsible for at 22.7 points per game, could set an NCAA single-season record as the most efficient passer in history if he can maintain his 192.31 passer rating and finished No. 2 nationally in total offense at 386.8 yards per game. He is a nasty combination of agility, speed, poise, leadership and accuracy.
Unfortunately for a Husky defense that ranked 94th overall at 426.3 yards allowed per game and 99th in scoring at 33.3 points per game, the Bears are not simply a one-man show. Tailback Terrance Ganaway finished No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing at over 112.0 yards per game. Wide receiver Kendall Wright caught at least six passes in every game this year and finished No. 2 nationally at 131.0 yards per game. And fellow wide receiver Terrance Williams has scored in seven straight games.
Sarkisian and his defensive staff will have their hands full trying to stop one of the nation’s most dynamic and balanced offensive attacks. Griffin might be the only one who can stop Griffin as his focus — his parents are apparently currently interviewing NFL agents — might be the only thing standing in the way of the school’s second 10-win season in program history.
WHEN WASHINGTON HAS THE BALL:
The good news for Washington is that their best defense might actually be on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Chris Polk give the Huskies a 1-2 punch on offense that should be effective enough to keep RG3 on the bench. Baylor didn’t stop anyone this fall either, ranking 114th in total defense at 477.5 yards per game and 109th in scoring defense at 35.7 points per game.
Price, a sophomore, started his first season as the starter with six consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes before an injured left knee forced him to miss some snaps in losses to USC and Oregon State late in the season. Back healthy for the Apple Cup, Price threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns — bringing his season to a school-record 29 for the year. Look for him to spread the football around to a host of elite pass-catchers in senior Jermaine Kearse (42 rec., 501 yards, 6 TD), freshman Kasen Williams (33 rec., 408 yards, 6 TD) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (36 rec., 479 yards, 6 TD).
As good as the passing game should be for Washington, it will be star tailback Polk who has the ability to slow the game down and keep RG3 on the bench. Polk rushed for his third consecutive 1,100-yard season and has scored 24 times over the last two seasons. His ability to get tough yards between the tackles, get to the edge when needed and catch passes on third downs makes him arguably the most important offensive piece in this game. Baylor allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game this season and getting Polk rolling early and often gives the Huskies their best chance to win.
Give Washington the distinct advantage on special teams. Kicker Erik Folk missed four of his total 63 kicks all season and punter Kiel Rasp led the Pac-12 in punting (45.1 ypp). Meanwhile, Baylor kicker Aaron Jones missed seven of his 16 field goal attempts and three extra points this year. Baylor also finished 114th nationally in punting and has struggled in the return game.
If the Huskies want to beat the Heisman Trophy winner, they have to win the special teams battle and keep Griffin III on the sideline. A productive and versatile Chris Polk will do just that. Both of these teams average more than 31 points per game and both defenses have struggled to stop anyone so it should be a high scoring duel on the Riverwalk. This said, it will be virtually impossible to beat Griffin III in what should be his final game in a Bears uniform and one final chance at the school’s first bowl win in 20 years.
Baylor 42, Washington 34