All eyes were going to be on Baylor's true freshman quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, as he made his first collegiate start Thursday night on the road against Kansas State.
And did Stidham ever open those eyes.
By going 23-of-33 for 419 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 win over the Wildcats, Stidham proved he's more than capable of leading the No. 6 Bears in a playoff run.
It was the Bears defense—not the freshman quarterback—that was the liability. Baylor had what appeared to be a comfortable 31-10 cushion in the fourth quarter but gave up two quick touchdowns and nearly coughed up the lead. Style points can be hard to come by in Manhattan, Kansas, and that held true once again.
As for Stidham, he wasn't perfect by any stretch. There were some misreads and forced throws. But this was as solid a starting debut as head coach Art Briles could have asked for.
Stidham got the ball to his playmakers, but he didn't simply "do enough" to win, either. His 40-yard completion to receiver KD Cannon late in the fourth quarter was bigger than any other play in the game. It showed how much confidence Baylor has in its young quarterback, who was replacing the injured Seth Russell, who's out for the year with a neck injury.
The win gives Stidham a good starting point and room to grow. A bad performance would have sounded much louder, scarier-sounding alarms.
Baylor didn't hurt its reputation as a plug-and-play offense, either. That's not a bad thing. Stidham's 19 years old, has been in the program for less than a year and just played his first meaningful game from start to finish two-thirds of the way through the season.
Of course Baylor wants to plug-and-play with success. If it can maintain a base offense that breeds big numbers regardless of the quarterback, it becomes a much smaller rebuilding project for the coaching staff.
And Baylor's staff did an excellent job building Stidham's confidence early with short throws on the opening drive. Almost everything right away was horizontal, including Stidham's first pass to Corey Coleman for 36 yards. In fact, the only pass downfield Stidham attempted on his first drive was an incompletion intended for Jay Lee.
The opening drive, which resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Stidham, went seven plays for 81 yards and took less than two minutes to complete.
That's how you get a quarterback into rhythm.
Briles wasn't surprised by Stidham's performance, per Craig Smoak of 1660 ESPN:
Every new signal-caller's best friend is a solid running game. The difference in Baylor's offense from a traditional power unit is that short throws behind, at or near the line of scrimmage are essentially running plays.
Guys like Coleman are out there doing the work, but Stidham just happens to get—or share in—the stats.
Once it was clear Stidham was comfortable with the short throws, Baylor was more willing to let him push the ball downfield. If the pass wasn't there, Stidham would often run and pick up what he could.
Understandably, he was more successful with the intermediate passes than he was with the deep ball. However, this 55-yard touchdown strike to Cannon was as accurate as anything he threw all night:
USA Today's George Schroeder liked what he saw from Stidham:
Things were simple, though. Stidham was hitting his first reads on practically every play. That was due to a combination of Baylor's wide receivers getting open and K-State's poor pass defense. The Wildcats already had the 82nd-rated pass defense in yards per attempt allowed (7.5) entering Thursday.
As freelance journalist David Ubben tweeted before the game, though, injuries in the secondary have been an issue for the Wildcats as well:
In that sense, K-State was the right opponent for Stidham to face first. Baylor's schedule goes from one of the easiest in the Football Bowl Subdivision to one of the hardest, and quickly. But Stidham has been brought along as well as possible, given the circumstances. He's gained experience in mop-up duty, had a bye week to prepare for his first start and didn't face his toughest opponent right away.
Coming off the bench cold against a top-tier Big 12 opponent would have been the worst thing for Stidham's development.
How Stidham plays going forward will be one of college football's most compelling storylines. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State allow fewer than five yards per play, and TCU isn't that far behind at 5.13. Those teams are Baylor's next three opponents.
For the second straight game, too, Baylor got sleepy in the second half. The Bears have been able to get away with moments of complacency so far, but that won't be the case against teams that are a combined 14-1.
How will Stidham respond during tough moments?
There weren't many against Kansas State, but he showed great poise and maturity when things were tight. Clearly, Baylor trusts Stidham to make big throws down the field. Here's guessing Thursday won't be the last time he's asked to do that.
Stidham grew up a lot, and quickly, against the Wildcats. If Baylor's defense is going to struggle like it did Thursday, this team will need more of that from one of its youngest players.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.