Texas Baylor Football

Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson (right) sacks Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer Saturday in Waco.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte

Watching this one, you’d never get the idea that the Big 12 was the Wide Open Offense Conference.

The Bears and Longhorns possessed all the explosive pop of a sparkler. It was almost as though the teams had combined for only three wins entering the encounter.

It was shown on ESPNU for a reason — U for Ugh.

What people sometimes forget when recalling the most special Texas and Baylor vintages of the Big 12 era is the way those teams ran the ball. Sure, UT’s best teams under Mack Brown featured the likes of Vince Young and Colt McCoy at quarterback. But the Longhorns always could shove a stud tailback into the game whenever they wanted, whether it was Cedric Benson or Ramonce Taylor or Jamaal Charles. Not to mention that VY and Colt could scoot a little, too.

But Vince isn’t walking through that door.

Meanwhile, Baylor crafted a reputation as Wide Receiver U under Art Briles, with a field-stretching unit that featured big-armed quarterbacks slinging the rock around to NFL-quality pass catchers. But — and even the national media sometimes missed this — everything was predicated on the ability to run the ball. To exploit the gaps that the spread offense naturally generated, with big-time backs like Jay Finley and Terrance Ganaway, Lache Seastrunk and Shock Linwood.

Those guys are long gone.

On Saturday, the Bears carried 37 times for 31 yards, a meager 0.8 per carry. Give the Texas defense some credit for that — Todd Orlando’s rugged unit is the strength of the UT team — but this game was merely the continuation of a season-long trend for Baylor. The Bears have been ramming their heads against a wall all year when it comes to the running game. Coming into the day, the Bears ranked 97th in the country in rushing offense. (Texas was only marginally better, at 77th.)

The aerial view presents a revealing snapshot of the whole picture. Matt Rhule is in a challenging situation in Year 1, to say the least. Baylor’s offensive line, as is, isn’t strong enough to manhandle Big 12 defenses. Overall, the depth pool sprung a leak a long time ago.

Zoom in a bit, though, and you spot things that shouldn’t happen, no matter who’s on the field. I mean, with a running back foursome of JaMycal Hasty, Terence Williams, John Lovett and Trestan Ebner, shouldn’t you be able to gain more than 31 yards on the ground?

You can’t beat teams when you’re committing false start penalties right after gaining five yards. (One step forward, one step back.) You can’t beat teams when you’re dropping snaps or coughing up the rock on runs or failing to throw the ball in the area code of the intended target.

That’s self-mutilation — and it’s stupid. And some of that falls back on the coaches.

“We thought we had a lot of those things corrected,” Rhule said. “I think the one thing you see is kids are pressing sometimes, trying to do too much. Like that first interception, the ball should be out — either right away and then the ball is outside. You see kids that are pressing because they’re good kids and they’re trying to fight and they’re trying to scratch and claw, and as a result you sometimes do a little too much.”

Sure, that makes sense. Desperation is not one of Calvin Klein’s most appealing fragrances. You can sense it among the Baylor players, even spot it in Rhule’s posture in the postgame interviews. Shoulders are starting to slump a bit. Losing gets old fast. Eight games of it? That’s older than dial-up internet.

At this point, picking up a win or two in the final four games really wouldn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Or would it? In the record books, there isn’t much difference between 2-10 and 0-12. But Baylor desperately needs to get some forward progress going, for the sake of the underclassmen’s confidence, for the foundation that Rhule wants to form, for the purposes of hanging on to recruits.

Obviously, the best hope — probably the last hope — for a Baylor win comes in the Basket Bowl next weekend against Kansas. Would be a great matchup on the court, not so much on the gridiron. The Jayhawks are terrible, and yet they might actually be favored to win at home over the winless Bears. (Assuming Vegas cares to produce odds for that one.)

Rhule has repeatedly praised the way his team has fought, the way it continues to attack practice, to work to try to get better.

And yet they’re not getting any better. So, will the Bears continue to push or will they pack it in?

“I told them we’d find out on Monday,” Rhule said. “I told them they’ll either come in on Monday and there will be a lot of truth being told. You have a good team when guys come in and say, ‘Boy, I know I messed up X, Y and Z. I’ve got to do this better.’ If guys are coming in and we’re having to pull teeth, then we’re not.”

Against a mediocre Texas team, the Baylor offense kept going backward.

It’s up to Rhule and his coaches to prevent the program from heading that direction, too.

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