Before Saturday’s game against Kansas State, College Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder took Baylor coach Matt Rhule aside and offered him some words of encouragement.
The veteran coach pulled off one of the most remarkable rebuilding jobs in the history of the sport to make Kansas State a consistent winner, so Rhule was naturally attentive.
“He said, ‘Matt, I know what you’re doing, I know how you are building it,’ ” Rhule said. “He said, ‘I like the way your team is getting better. I see a better football team every week.’ He said to please share with your team I really respect their ability to fight back and play hard until the end. I see those words from a man like that as encouragement.”
The Bears went on to drop a 33-20 decision to the Wildcats in Manhattan to fall to 0-5 to match the program’s worst start since 1978.
But Rhule still has hope that the Bears will break through with some wins as they plunge deeper into Big 12 play.
“We’re going to have to get a lot better,” Rhule said. “When we’ll get good enough to win these games, I don’t know. I’m definitely pleased with their progress, I’m pleased with their work ethic, I’m pleased with how we’ve improved on third down. We’ve improved in a lot of areas that’s keeping us in games. If we would have played these two teams the first two weeks it might have been pretty ugly. “
In all five losses this season, the Bears have had chances to win the games at the start of the fourth quarter but haven’t been able to finish them off.
Heading into the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, the Bears trailed 20-13 after outscoring the Wildcats 10-0 in the third quarter. Freshman John Lovett’s electric 74-yard touchdown run gave the Bears the boost they needed.
But a high snap over quarterback Zach Smith’s head set up the Wildcats at Baylor’s 14 at the end of the third quarter. Kansas State cashed in when quarterback Jesse Ertz ran for a 15-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter.
After Smith responded with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Denzel Mims, the Bears pulled within seven again. But a fumbled snap by punter Connor Martin gave the Wildcats great field position again and they closed out the win with Matthew McCrane’s 23-yard field goal with 4:57 remaining.
“You’re a couple plays away from winning all the games,” Rhule said. “To have the ball with a chance to take the lead in all the fourth quarters in all these games, it’s just not happening. But it will happen. I think we suffered. I know this hurts. This was a game we thought we could win.”
Denzel Mims was a four-sport athlete at Daingerfield High School, and most of the skills tha…
Rhule believes in Baylor’s rebuilding process because he’s done it before during his four-year stint as Temple’s head coach.
In his first season in 2013, the Owls lost their first six games before finishing with a 2-10 record. But Rhule’s players trusted his vision for the program as the Owls finished 6-6 in 2014 before breaking through with a pair of 10-win seasons. That success led to Rhule becoming Baylor’s coach last December.
“There were a lot of games that first year at Temple where it came down to the last play or the last drive of the last quarter,” Rhule said. “It eventually came to where we got a win. But the biggest thing it taught our kids was how to win. That’s what’s happening right now. First we have to learn how to win and then you have to learn how to consistently win.”
Rhule sees a lot of correlations between his first year as Temple’s head coach and his first Baylor squad. They were both young teams playing a lot of freshmen who made mistakes but worked hard and kept improving.
Rhule’s Temple program eventually evolved into a winner, and he expects Baylor to go through the same transformation.
When backup quarterback Charlie Brewer made a brief appearance in the first half against the Wildcats, it marked the 16th true freshman to play for the Bears this season.
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Joe Paterno, Rhule’s college coach at Penn State, always said it’s difficult to win with freshmen. But Rhule has no choice since the Bears have limited experienced players. The Bears have started 24 different freshmen and sophomores through the first five weeks.
“Coach (Joe) Paterno used to say, ‘You get a loss for every freshman you play,’ ” Rhule said. “I don’t think that way. But you have to recognize when you do that there’s going to be some plays that bother you. You see flashes of the future. You see Lovett with the long play, you see Mims, and all the freshmen and sophomores. These kids are going to win a lot of football games. They’re going to be a really, really good team.”
After facing the Cowboys, the Bears’ schedule will become more favorable with home games against West Virginia on Oct. 21 and Texas on Oct. 28. In November, the Bears hit the road to play Kansas before facing Texas Tech in Arlington and coming home to play Iowa State. Baylor closes the season at TCU on Nov. 24.
For a young team that’s trying to break through with a win, none of the remaining games will be easy. But Rhule and his players will continue to believe in the process.
“Once you don’t get the win it’s always going to be frustrating,” Mims said. “But we just have to come to practice and keep working so we can make the plays to win the game late in the second half. We all want to win, so we’ve all bought in so we can get a win. I’m thankful to have a bye week so we all can get some rest and fix our mistakes and try to come play Oklahoma State when we get back.”