After losing its three nonconference games, Baylor has numerous issues heading into Big 12 play against No. 3 Oklahoma on Saturday at McLane Stadium.
But the Bears’ biggest problem is an offensive line that has gotten more ineffective as the competition has grown stronger.
Following a promising start against Liberty, the Bears had difficulty establishing their running game in a 17-10 loss to UTSA and Saturday’s 34-20 loss to Duke in their first road game in Durham, N.C.
With pass protection breaking down everywhere, Baylor’s quarterbacks have had little time to throw, and their statistics have reflected their frustration.
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Making his first start of the season, Baylor sophomore quarterback Zach Smith hit 12 of 34 passes for 263 yards with three interceptions. Duke collected three sacks and Smith was often scrambling to find time to throw on other plays.
“Chris Platt had a couple of big plays that enabled us to stay in the game, but the issue offensively is up front,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule. “We can’t run the football right now. When you can’t run the football, you can’t control the game. There’s nothing efficient and that really starts up front with our ability to run the football and protect the quarterback.”
In a 48-45 season-opening loss to Liberty, the Bears rushed for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman John Lovett rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns while quarterback Anu Solomon picked up 97 yards on just six carries.
The Bears rushed for 137 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per rush against UTSA. But their running game was futile against Duke as they finished with just 57 yards on 27 carries. The Bears converted one of 12 third downs and failed to convert on three fourth downs.
Baylor was already short handed coming into the game with tight ends Jordan Feuerbacher (broken hand) and Ish Wainright (illness) unable to play. Guard Ishmael Wilson left the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury.
“We came in knowing this was a really good defensive line,” Rhule said. “But at the end of the day, we have to play better than that. We went into the year kind of knowing that we were going to be a little young up there. We had to kind of reshuffle in-game. It was just sort of that end of the game, it got ugly where we just couldn’t protect.”
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The Bears finally broke when Duke middle linebacker Ben Humphreys intercepted Smith’s pass and returned it for a 22-yard touchdown with 11:31 left in the game. Besides his three interceptions, Smith also had a crucial fourth-quarter fumble that led to Duke’s final field goal with 4:57 remaining.
“He has to protect the ball a little bit better on the sacks,” Rhule said. “At the end of the day, we can’t give up stripped sacks. There’s room for improvement. But he was out there and the players were fighting for him. And that’s the biggest thing I wanted to see is I want to see a quarterback that the players want to go to war with. And they looked like they wanted to with him.”
With few veteran offensive linemen, the Bears knew it was a potential problem area coming into the season. Freshman Ryan Miller started the first two games at center before sophomore Sam Tecklenburg moved from left guard to center against Duke.
“There’s not too many guys on the offensive line to turn to,” Rhule said. “But the ones that are there, we’ll turn to them and see who’s healthy and maybe rotate a little bit more. Just like we’ve done on defense, we have to do it on offense. We have to just keep going back and solving problems.”
In sharp contrast, Baylor’s defensive line enjoyed its best game of the season as it sacked Duke quarterback Daniel Jones five times.
Senior defensive end Brian Nance recorded a pair of sacks while linebacker Clay Johnston, linebacker Eric Ogor and defensive tackle Ira Lewis picked up one apiece. Baylor’s defensive staff gave Duke a variety of looks up front and had a big day.
“We went with a four-man front, three-man front, nickel front, blitz front,” Rhule said. “We did a bunch of different things. We got a lot of pressure from a lot of people. That’s the best offensive line we’ve faced. As disappointing as it is to lose, when you’re going through this process, you have to find the things you’re doing really well.”
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The Blue Devils converted just four of 18 third downs but they still controlled the clock for 38 minutes and 57 seconds. Duke finished with 439 yards total offense and picked up 24 first downs. But Baylor’s defense forced two turnovers and kept the Bears in the game.
“Our defense held them to 27 points even though they were leading the ACC in pretty much everything,” Rhule said. “We held them to four of 18 on third down, knocked the ball loose, got to the quarterback. Those are all things we weren’t able to do a mere two weeks ago against Liberty, and now they’re playing at a significantly higher level.”
Now the Bears will face a powerful Oklahoma squad that’s off to a 3-0 start and features a leading Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Baker Mayfield. In their last road game, the Sooners knocked off Ohio State, 31-16, in Columbus.
Though the Bears are winless, Rhule believes his team will embrace the challenge of facing one of the top teams in the country. With running back Terence Williams expected play for the first time this season after offseason shoulder surgery, Rhule hopes Baylor’s running game is more productive.
“They have a chance to go out and face the No. 3 team in the country and see where you stack up with them,” Rhule said. “We have no pressure on us. So go play and have fun and fly around and just get better this week than we were this past week. Hopefully, we can go play well against OU and get a little bit better and get a little more efficient on offense. That’s why they came to Baylor, to play against the best.”