After losing its first two games at McLane Stadium, Baylor is hoping a change of scenery will do some good for a football team that badly needs a win before hitting the Big 12 gauntlet.
The Bears will play Duke for the first time since 1958 at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.
Baylor would like for this trip to North Carolina to be as productive as its last in 2009, when the Bears pulled off a 24-21 win over Wake Forest in the season opener in Winston-Salem. This is the Bears’ first nonconference game against a Power 5 conference opponent since that win.
What appeared to be the easy part of Baylor’s schedule turned into nightmarish losses to Liberty and UTSA. First-year coach Matt Rhule believes it’s important to remain optimistic as the Bears prepare for their final nonconference game before facing No. 2 Oklahoma on Sept. 23 at McLane Stadium.
“I’m kind of upset about being 0-2, but these kids have lost eight of their last nine,” Rhule said. “So that takes a toll on you. A lot of people are asking why Coach Rhule is so positive, but it’s because these kids need some positivity. They’re a good team and they’re good kids, but they just need some good things to happen to themselves and they’ve got to fight through this dark time.”
Rhule knew he was taking over a difficult situation when he arrived at Baylor last December, and it’s become harder with key players like running backs Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty, defensive lineman K.J. Smith and cornerback Grayland Arnold out with injuries.
Tight end Ish Wainright will also miss the game due to illness, but there’s a chance Jordan Feuerbacher could return after missing the last game with a broken hand.
Most of the injured players are expected to return in the upcoming weeks, but the Bears will still be an extraordinarily young team. Fifteen true freshmen have played for the Bears in the first two games, the fifth most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Baylor’s 18 first-time starters, including five true freshmen, are the most in the FBS this season.
“We’ve got freshmen who aren’t just starting as true freshmen, but they’re starting at a position they’ve never played before,” Rhule said. “These guys keep going out and practicing, and they need a win. They need small successes, which turn into big successes, which turn into epic successes. Those are the victories we’re looking for right now.”
Watching graduate transfer Anu Solomon start Baylor’s first two games, sophomore Zach Smith …
With Anu Solomon out with concussion-like symptoms, sophomore Zach Smith will step in at quarterback. Replacing injured Seth Russell last season, Smith started the last four games and led the Bears to a 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl as he passed for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
Smith has the most powerful arm among the Baylor quarterbacks and is more mobile this year after recovering from an ankle injury and losing weight. Though Duke is a 14-point favorite after its 2-0 start, Smith likes Baylor’s chances.
“I’m looking forward to traveling out there to Duke and playing them,” Smith said. “It will be a change of scenery, but I think we’ll handle it well. We’re a really solid team, we know it’s a brotherhood, so we’ve got a lot of camaraderie and I think we’re all going to have each other’s backs. For us to win, we’re going to have to do that.”
The Blue Devils romped to a 60-7 win over North Carolina Central in their opener before blowing past Northwestern, 41-17, last week.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones has been exceptional, as he’s hit 68.6 percent of his passes for 518 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception in the first two games. Jones has also been good with his feet as he’s rushed for 127 yards and three scores.
“He’s a really great athlete who started for us a year ago every game as redshirt freshman,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “Daniel is stronger now and he’s faster. He’s big and has great vision and his understanding of the game is better. The best part is that he’s not near where he could ultimately end up.”
Duke features a solid running game that’s averaged 238 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. Brittain Brown leads the Blue Devils with 149 yards rushing, while Shaun Wilson has picked up 117 yards.
Though the Bears improved defensively in last week’s 17-10 loss to UTSA, they’ve given up 480 yards per game in the first two weeks. They’ve been especially vulnerable against the pass as Liberty and UTSA quarterbacks completed 73.8 percent for 602 yards for five touchdowns and no interceptions.
“We still haven’t forced a turnover on defense,” Rhule said. “That has to happen. We’ve got to knock a ball loose or pick a ball off.”
Duke’s defense has been tremendous as it has allowed just 174.5 yards per game. In last week’s win over Northwestern, the Blue Devils gave up just 191 yards and collected four sacks and three interceptions.
“Victor Dimukeje is their freshman defensive end who is lights out,” Rhule said. “They’re obviously one of the best teams in the ACC now, and they look like a Top 25 team, and it’ll be a tremendous opportunity for us to go on the road and play a great team like that. I watch them, and I say to myself, ‘That’s what football looks like.’ They are playing the game really well.”
With Solomon out of action, freshman Charlie Brewer will back up Smith at quarterback. But Baylor’s offensive line needs to play at a higher level after allowing four sacks against UTSA.
“The offensive line through the first two games hasn’t been what we want it to be,” said Baylor offensive tackle Mo Porter. “We’ve got to step up the pass protection, and we’ve got to step up the run blocking too. That’s on me as a senior for letting certain stuff happen at practice. As soon as the O-line gets rolling, the whole game is going to get better for the skill positions.”
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