WVU football: Baylor quarterback Florence fills void left by Griffin III
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia's move into the Big 12 Conference was accompanied by promises that the Mountaineers would play and welcome the best teams, flashiest offenses and top players.
WVU will follow through Saturday and supply the superlative when the ninth-ranked Mountaineers play their first Big 12 game.
There is a twist. The opponent in Saturday's game at Mountaineer Field (noon, FX telecast) is not Kansas State, now the top-ranked team in the league, or Oklahoma State, with the nation's No. 1 offense, or even Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, the Big 12's marquee offensive opponent.
Say hello to the NCAA's leader in total offense, Baylor quarterback Nick Florence.
"I think he's been just exactly what we thought we'd get out of him," Bears Coach Art Briles said. "By our estimation, and statistically, he's been very, very productive and he's done exactly what he's been asked to do in his unselfish manner."
The senior from Garland, Texas, leads the country with an average of 387.7 yards per game (354.7 passing, 53 rushing) and has led the 25th-ranked Bears to a 3-0 start after losing Heisman Trophy quarterback Robert Griffin III to the NFL.
This isn't the first time - or even the second - Florence has had to replace Griffin, though. Griffin tore his right ACL in 2009 and Florence started the final seven games. Last year, with Griffin established, Florence was scheduled to redshirt and regain the starting position as a junior this season.
That plan went awry in the 11th game of the season. Griffin slid late in the first half, but was hit up high and suffered a concussion. The Bears were up just 31-28 at the half and decided to play the unselfish Florence.
"It was unexpected in the sense Rob got hurt and no one expected that, but before the year started we talked about redshirting and said if worst comes to worst and something happens, then I'll probably go in," Florence said. "We were trying to get through the year and we got through most of the year, but then it happened. But that was a big game for us. We needed to win that game to get to 10 wins."
Florence played admirably in relief, completing 9 of 12 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns as the Bears rolled and won 66-42. It gave Baylor an 8-3 record and its first eight-win season since 1991. Before the season, Baylor's players talked about a 10-win season and the win against the Red Raiders kept everything on track as the team aimed for a bid in the Cotton or Alamo Bowl.
Griffin returned the next week and the Bears won the last two games, including the Alamo Bowl against Washington.
"It was a big deal to have a winning season," Florence said. "When I first got here, we won four games. Then we won (three) more and made it to a bowl game. Now we win a bowl game and get 10 wins. The goal now is a Big 12 championship.
"Perceptions change. There are still going to be people who write us off. That's the way it's always going to be. But we wanted respect and now people aren't going to look at us on their schedule and say, 'Oh, that's a win.' They're going to have to come out ready to play, which is the way we want it."
Briles, a big-time winner in Texas high school football before he was an assistant at Texas Tech with Mountaineers Coach Dana Holgorsen and then the head coach at the University of Houston, has continued the offensive exploits from the Griffin years with Florence.
Baylor was No. 2 in the country in total offense last year and is No. 6 now, but is averaging 51.3 points, or six more than last season. Florence has completed 71 of 110 passes for 1,004 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
On the road Friday against upstart Louisiana-Monroe, Florence was intercepted on the second and third drives as the Bears fell behind 14-0. They rallied from a 21-7 deficit and won 45-42 as Florence finished 26-for-39 for 351 yards and four touchdowns.
"At this stage, we're right where we thought we'd be with him," Briles said. "We still think there's more out there for him, without question."
Even without Griffin and four other NFL Draft picks, the Bears offense hasn't changed. They're still spreading the field, calling the same plays and putting up very similar numbers. Florence has made it possible. Griffin helped the offense evolve, but Florence was there to watch and learn and eventually do it on his own.
Much like WVU, the Bears don't have a playbook and rely instead on a small number of plays they can alter slightly without redefining the offense. It's been that way for as long as Florence has been there and he's been able to master the fairly focused concepts.
"I've watched enough through the years," he said. "Obviously, some of the plays might change a little and we might do protection a little different here or throw in a wrinkle there, but it's still the same play, even though we make it look different. It keeps evolving. If you watch film over and over and start to see one play you realize, 'Hey, if we add this, we open a whole new realm.' You add one thing to it and then you have the one play and a new play."
Griffin left the Bears in a prime position, but Florence has forwarded all the momentum. The nine-game winning streak is second nationally only to TCU's 11-game streak and the best at the school since 10 straight in 1936-37. The Bears have scored at least 30 points in all nine games, the fourth-best streak in the nation, and 45 or more points in the past seven games. They've also managed at least 500 yards of offense each game of the winning streak.
"I think we all imagined turning it around - that's why we signed with Baylor," Florence said. "We had a vision to turn the program around, but when the senior class signed, we were nobodies. All of us, in the back of our minds, knew we were going to change it. We just didn't know it would look like this."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.