MONTGOMERY – It hasn’t been the senior year Omar Bayless envisioned.
Sure, on the field Bayless was one of the nation’s best receivers, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best college receiver after hauling in 84 passes for 1,473 yards and 16 touchdowns this year.
Off the field, it seemed the last two years have been one test after another that threatened to derail his season.
On Saturday night, he went out on top with a Camellia Bowl-record 180 yards on nine receptions to lead Arkansas State to a 34-26 win over Florida International at Cramton Bowl on Saturday night.
“Just put in the hard work and everything takes care of itself,” Bayless said. “The main thing I did throughout this year is put God first. And I learned how to overcome adversity. No matter what you go through, you can get through it because God doesn’t put more on you than you can handle. I just can’t thank God enough for it.”
Bayless struggled with his emotions during 2018 as a former high school teammate was shot and killed, a cousin passed away, then an uncle, then another high school friend. That paled in comparison to the adversity the entire team would face in August, 2019, when Wendy Anderson, the wife of the head coach, lost her battle with cancer.
Wendy had been a source of strength for Bayless when he faced adversity in 2018 and now he would do the same for Blake Anderson as his world came apart.
“Days went by when I knew he was down,” Bayless said. “I would just always text him and uplift him. Just to get this for him is an honor. I just appreciate him for never giving up on me through all the things that we’ve been through. The only thing me and Coach ‘A’ did was lean on each other all year long because we were both going through things. So we just kept each other uplifted.”
It’s difficult to put the high-powered Arkansas State offense on one person, but Bayless is the cornerstone, the foundation for a squad that put together eight wins despite an injury-filled season that robbed the team of its starting quarterback and struggles to stop opponents with its defense.
The Red Wolves’ first drive include two third-down conversions from Bayless on catches from quarterback Layne Hatcher, capped by a 4-yard grab in the back of the end zone for the game’s first points. He was instrumental in setting up a field goal late in the first half with a 51-yard reception and had a 52-yard reception late that led to a key touchdown after FIU had trimmed the deficit to a point.
“We knew going into the game those two wide receivers (Bayless and Kirk Merritt) were outstanding,” FIU coach Butch Davis said. “I think the statistic was like 72 percent of their touchdowns had at least one explosive play in the drive. You knew going into it they were going to take shots. They’re going to take it one-on-one and see if you can cover and those two kids are very, very talented and they made some big plays.”
Florida International came into the game with one of the top passing defenses in the nation, allowing just 178.5 yards per game to rank sixth nationally. With Bayless and Merritt, the Red Wolves didn’t flinch, passing for a Camellia Bowl-record 393 yards.
“It was strength versus strength,” Anderson said. “We felt like our wideouts were going to be tough to cover and they were. We just felt like we had to take what has been the best component of our offense all year and say thank you for playing man coverage and then try to go beat them.
“We were respectful of them, too. We weren’t trying to be careless, we just felt like we had good matchups that we could win and we did most of the day.”
His impact on the game earned Bayless the Bart Starr Most Valuable Player Award, the first receiver in the six-year history of the bowl to earn the award. He joins Bowling Green quarterback James Knapke (2014), Appalachian State tailback Marcus Cox (2015), Appalachian State quarterback Taylor Lamb (2016), Middle Tennessee linebacker Darius Harris (2017) and Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts (2018) as Bart Starr MVP winners.
Anderson didn’t have a vote, but he had to be happy the Laurel, Miss., native won the award.
“We’ve talked a lot about my relationship with Omar and I feel the same way about all those guys,” Anderson said. “I know he gets a lot of publicity and our relationship is unique but there’s no doubt we’re very close. I recruited him from the beginning and his relationship with Wendy and my family is closer than normal.”