Baylor Texas Tech Football

Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims (left) is tackled by Texas Tech’s Jaylon Lane in the first half Saturday.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson

ARLINGTON — Nothing about what unfolded should have surprised the smattering of fans who attended Saturday’s Texas Farm Bureau Snoozeout.

Baylor is not a good football team. Texas Tech isn’t much better. This shouldn’t be news to anyone.

The Bears get to schedule Kansas just once a year. If Baylor wants to ever beat anyone else again, it’s going to have to get a whole lot tougher, better and smarter. The Bears’ 38-24 strugglefest against the Red Raiders illustrated that truth perfectly. If Google maps were describing just how far Baylor has to travel to reach Respectability, Texas, it would say something like, “In 500 miles (or 24 months, whichever comes first), make a hard right.”

Like I said, tougher, better, smarter. Baylor won’t produce a championship-contending program — heck, it won’t contend for the Polyester Blend Bowl — until it vastly improves in all three areas. You don’t need Jerry Jones’ big-screen TV to see that.

Tougher. Matt Rhule came in with the idea of instilling a kind of old-school grit into the Baylor program. The Bears have cracked the pads more in practice than they did under Rhule’s predecessor, Art Briles. In pregame warm-ups, they traditionally let players go at it in the Oklahoma drill, football’s version of a gladiator battle.

But the Bears have yet to demonstrate the kind of toughness they need to win Big 12 football games. Toughness means picking up a half-yard on 4th-and-goal. Toughness means not repeatedly whiffing on tackles. It’s the 10th game of the season. Baylor defenders shouldn’t still be trying to top each other’s matador impersonations — “Ole! Now it’s your turn!”

“Oh yeah, missed tackles are a problem,” Rhule said. “Our safeties have gotten better at tackling. I mean, you know, there was a point in the middle of the year where we weren’t really tackling anyone. But we were a missed tackle away from that not being a touchdown (on Cameron Batson’s 30-yard TD catch).”

Better. Baylor needs to get better in myriad ways. Collectively. Individually. On the sideline. In the coaches’ box. On the recruiting trail. Everywhere.

Here’s how you get better: Pooh Stricklin can’t drop a pass that hits him right in the bear paws in the end zone. Stricklin, among the many walking wounded, made up for it two plays later when he hauled in a 6-yard touchdown pass from Charlie Brewer. That’s better. But what Baylor really needs is for their guys to make the first catch.

“Not beating ourselves,” Stricklin answered when asked where Baylor needs to improve the most.

Three simple words, but Pooh said a mouthful. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, but you’ve got to get the heck out of your own way before you can run. Getting better means Grayland Arnold wrapping up on the ball carrier, it means Charlie Brewer not bobbling the ball away on a handoff, it means Denzel Mims elevating into the clouds and pulling down a TD treasure on the 50-50 ball.

In some cases, it likely will mean Baylor bringing in better players. That’s the nature of recruiting. If you’re can’t get it done in a certain position group (cough, cough—the offensive line) you’ve got to go find some guys who can.

And smarter. Lord knows that Baylor has made its share of flat-out stupid plays this season. Some of that can be attributed to the ignorance of youth. Young players will make young player mistakes. That’ll change over time.

Some of the learning needs to happen faster, before some of these guys get left back a grade or two.

“For all the great things our young players are doing, today was a day where a couple of our young guys made some errors that we just have to continue to coach through,” Rhule said. “We had the ball in the red zone four times in the first half, and we got points on one, so that’s one out of four. That’s really not how you win football games.”

Winning also requires a dollop of luck. Baylor has been as unlucky as it has been bad, and that’s the mixed drink equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. It’s a deadly combination.

The Bears can’t catch a break with injuries, but they can break a catcher, that’s for sure. The football gods are angry, my friends. Receiver Gavin Holmes was the latest casualty against the Red Raiders. After starting the game by catching a touchdown pass on Baylor’s opening drive, Holmes finished it leaning on crutches with a heavily wrapped knee.

Rhule said that these Bears have experienced “two to three years” worth of injuries this season. That’s mind-boggling.

It’s hard to win when you’re that unlucky. But you can overcome it if you’re tough enough, good enough and smart enough. Baylor isn’t there yet, and Rhule — who can point to several areas where the team is making progress — knows it better than anyone.

“Everything is a concern,” he said. “I think the most important thing to realize when you go through this is this: You can see the progress, you can talk about the process, you can see the result, that doesn’t mean that you sleep well. That doesn’t mean you walk into work, you know, ‘Hey, everything’s great.’ No, no. It’s not good enough.”

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

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