Phase One of Baylor’s three-step plan to win a football game: Play well in all three phases.
So far, that hasn’t happened. If the Bears’ season were a horse and buggy ride, the team of horses would be out of sync, with colts alternately running faster than the others, leading to a diversion from the path.
In Baylor’s season-opening 48-45 loss to Liberty two weeks ago, the Bears’ offense experienced some shining moments while the defense floundered. A week later in a 17-10 humbling to UTSA, the defense and special teams units each made numerous standout plays while the offense withered and vanished.
Entering this weekend’s first road test at Duke, the Bears would just like to put together a complete game.
“We improved on defense,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. “We played well enough to win on offense two weeks ago. We didn’t play well enough on defense. We played well enough to win on defense this week and not on offense. Now we have to put it all together.”
While deigning to credit, however begrudgingly, the Flames and Roadrunners, the Bears realize they haven’t helped themselves in the first two games. Silly, stupid mistakes have yielded big plays for the opponents or have halted Baylor’s own offensive drives.
Those types of errors are correctable, the players said.
“It’s just minor mistakes. If we fix those mistakes we’re going to be good,” offensive tackle Mo Porter said. “So many plays the O-line did this, the receivers did that, the running back did this. Once we all start linking up together, we’ll be the big-play offense we used to be.”
Penalties proved to be a particular bugaboo for the Bears against UTSA. Officials flagged Baylor 10 times for 98 yards. Eight of those 10 penalties went against Baylor’s offense, consisting of everything from three false starts, two holding calls, a personal foul, an offensive pass interference infraction and a delay of game.
Plus, UTSA declined an 11th flag – an illegible receiver downfield on the Bears – when they intercepted one of Anu Solomon’s passes.
“They are saying to themselves, “Why can’t we score? We’re used to scoring, why can’t we score?’” Rhule said. “And then you go back and watch the film and see that we had three penalties on the first drive. And then the second drive, you’re moving, and you throw an interception. … It’s just a play here or a play there.”
Rhule blamed himself for handcuffing the offense a bit against UTSA. The coaches have sought to simplify packages, considering how many rookies have been pressed into action. Ish Wainright, playing in just his second football game since the eighth grade, started at tight end against UTSA due to an injury to Jordan Feurerbacher. True freshman John Lovett got the call at running back with Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty out. Another true freshman, Ryan Miller, logged his second consecutive start at center.
Rhule said that he plans to remove some of the limitations he placed on the offense last week and diversify the playbook.
“This week I said, ‘Do what you guys want to do.’ ... I’ve got to trust the freshman tailbacks that they’re going to go do what they need to do,” Rhule said. “I think that those struggles on offense last week really at the end of the day come back to me, and come back to me not letting Jeff (Nixon) and those guys do what they want to do. I said, ‘You guys go do it this week, and I’ll keep myself over here.’”
When the offensive, defensive and special teams units work in concert on a football team, it’s a harmonious thing. For all their troubles the first two weeks, the Bears found themselves in both games in the fourth quarter, albeit it against opponents many expected them to blow out.
Baylor players say they still believe there is time to turn this season around. Porter, for one, said the Bears could have an “unstoppable team” once all three units starting clicking together.
At this point, if they could just avoid stopping themselves, that would be progress.
“Like Coach Rhule said, before we’re going to win we’ve got to play winning football,” said sophomore quarterback Zach Smith, who will make his first start against the Blue Devils. “So, we’ve got to execute all our assignments, no missed assignments. We’ve got to go out there and be mentally focused and we’ve got to execute. If we don’t do that, then the outcome’s not going to be what we want.”
Baylor tight end Ish Wainright will miss the Duke game due to illness after he got his first start against UTSA. Baylor coach Matt Rhule said there’s a possibility Jordan Feuerbacher could return after missing the last game with a broken hand. Rob Saulin and Kyle Boyd will also likely be used at tight end.