DALLAS – Kliff Kingsbury tried to keep it secret all week that walk-on freshman Baker Mayfield would start for Texas Tech in the season opener.
Now the cat’s out of the bag, and Mayfield looks like anything but a stopgap.
Mayfield threw four touchdown passes Friday night and Texas Tech started the Kingsbury coaching era beating SMU 41-23 in front of a full house at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Wearing the No. 6 that Graham Harrell made famous, Mayfield broke a school record for completions in a career debut.
And naturally, because he’s coached both, Kingsbury was asked how Mayfield’s debut compared to that of Johnny Manziel.
“Very similar in their mentalities,” Kingsbury said. “Johnny’s a phenom athletically. He does stuff with his feet that we’ve never seen anybody do on a college football field. It’s tough to make that comparison. But as far as the fearlessness and just attacking and not getting up and down and flustered, I saw that same look in Baker’s eyes.”
Mayfield finished the night 43 of 60 for 413 yards.
And the newcomer from Lake Travis made Tech fans breathe a little easier by running in a fourth-quarter touchdown that had a whiff of Johnny Football. With Tech up 20-16, Mayfield looked right, darted left, dodged a tackler and ran in from 11 yards — then threw his chest back and did a double Guns Up.
That’s a good way to win people over.
“He found a way to get in,” Kingsbury said. “It wasn’t beautiful. It’s not Johnny Manziel, but he’s a tough kid. He’s bigger, stronger than you think. He does just enough to keep plays alive and make you make plays.”
He might have done just enough to shed his walk-on label right off the bat. Kingsbury acknowledged he needs to check the scholarship numbers to see if one could be freed up for Mayfield.
His touchdown run came one play after Tech running backs ran together on first-and-goal from the 2, causing a 9-yard loss.
When Mayfield came off after his TD, Kingsbury spent a long time in his ear.
“I was talking about the play before where they ran into each other,” Kingsbury said. “That was completely his (Mayfield’s) fault. I was just letting him know about that. He made up some check at the line that we don’t have, so they ran into each other.”
Mayfield threw scoring passes of 33 yards to Jordan Davis and 10 yards to Bradley Marquez as Tech pulled out of a 6-6 tie late in the first half. Marquez’s touchdown catch made it 20-9 in the third quarter and Tech poured it on in the fourth quarter for its 15th win in a row against SMU.
After his fourth-quarter TD run, Mayfield flipped a 3-yard scoring pass to Jakeem Grant to put the game out of reach and a 22-yarder to Reginald Davis that made it 41-16.
Kingsbury rocketed onto the hot coaches’ list last season, shepherding Manziel to the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M before getting the call to take over his alma mater. Mayfield wasn’t exactly Manziel, but he looked gung-ho and confident — like the guy who led Lake Travis to a 16-0 season and a state title two years ago.
The experience came in handy as he took a crash course in Kingsbury’s offense.
“It’s not too hard to learn, but it’s really difficult to operate,” Kingsbury said. “He had great coaches in high school at Lake Travis that prepared him for that moment. You could tell he was coached that way and played in a similar offense, so when he got in there, it was like old hat to him.”
In fact, he might have been a little too confident. He had passes deflected near the line, took four sacks, lost the handle a few times and took some big hits. Once, he came up shaking his head vigorously after the Mustangs were flagged for roughing the passer.
Somehow, though, Mayfield played keep-away from a team that had 37 takeaways last season and tied an NCAA record with eight interception-return touchdowns.
He got a big helping hand from a Tech defense that delivered on new defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s promise to bring the heat. The Red Raiders sacked SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert five times — more sacks than they had in any game last year.
It could have been six, but Gilbert made a desperate throw-away with Kerry Hyder wrapped around him midway through the fourth quarter.
Gilbert brought SMU within 20-16, however, scrambling 23 yards up the middle for a third-quarter touchdown.
SMU got three field goals from Chase Hover, including a 51-yarder that cut Tech’s lead to 13-9 as time ran out in the first half.
In the first half, Mayfield was 18 for 27 for 148 yards and fellow Lake Travis grad Gilbert was 15 of 21 for 157 yards. But the defenses took turns bowing up in the red zone. Both teams had 14-play drives ending in field goals to start the game.
Tech’s Ryan Bustin kicked his second field goal early in the second quarter for a 6-3 lead. That was right after Mayfield kept on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and ran in, only to have it wiped out by holding.
Kingsbury says one attribute he’ll seek in a quarterback is the ability to keep plays alive, which might explain why Mayfield beat out fellow freshmen Davis Webb and Clayton Nicholas. Though he didn’t have many big runs other than the touchdown, he had no problem taking off — either on designed runs or to avoid pressure.
Kingsbury said he never considered inserting the other QBs, because of what he’d seen all week from Mayfield in closed practices.
“He had practiced like a senior all week, and I expected him to play really well,”
Kingsbury said. “I couldn’t be more impressed with the operation, the way he handled his teammates and just happy that he got to play as well as I thought he would.
“The checks he made, the things he was doing and the communication with his teammates, it didn’t look like a true freshman that got there second summer session and hadn’t had spring ball yet.”
Tech tight end Jace Amaro was suspended for the first half, a result of his punching a Minnesota player in the second half of last year’s season finale bowl game. Amaro was a big help as soon as he came back.
With Tech up 13-9, Mayfield threw passes of 18, 12 and 12 yards to Amaro on the 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with the touchdown pass to Marquez.
After he came off the field following that TD, Mayfield consulted briefly with Michael Brewer, the quarterback who was supposed to start for Tech before suffering a back injury this summer. Brewer watched from the sideline, wearing wind pants, his jersey and a visor.
Kingsbury doesn’t let freshmen talk to the media, so it’ll be some time before anyone hears from Mayfield. Kingsbury said he’s not worried about Mayfield keeping his head on straight in the meantime.
“He’s very grounded,” Kingsbury said. “I haven’t been around many kids with as big a chip on their shoulder and rightfully so. I think that’s going to keep him grounded and keep him pushing forward.”