It’s been suggested that the third time’s a charm.
That hasn’t been remotely true for the Baylor football team this year. The Bears have been living anything but a charmed life on third down, both offensively and defensively. If third down is a charm, Baylor is ready for whatever witch cast that evil spell to lift it.
Phil Snow’s defense has allowed opponents to convert 26 of 58 opportunities on third down, a rate of 44.8 percent that ranks 105th in the country. On the flip side, the offense of Jeff Nixon and Glenn Thomas has found even less success. The Bears have reached the first-down marker just seven times in 35 third-down plays, a rate of 20 percent that ranks 128th out of the 130 teams in Division I football.
Baylor linebacker Eric Ogor said he believes the defensive players are overcoming the growing pains they endured over the first couple of weeks of the season.
“When you start a new defense, it’s just the fits and alignments and everything that gets people kind of iffy the first couple games,” Ogor said. “So, after two weeks of just everybody focusing up, doing what they’ve got to do, everybody’s trying to figure out where their role is in the defense. So I see (the third-down struggles) going down little by little each week.”
It’s true that after bleeding yards on third down in a season-opening loss to Liberty, the Bears have made incremental improvements. Baylor coach Matt Rhule noted that the defense has allowed opponents to convert just four of the past 24 third-down tries since halftime of the UT San Antonio game, including a sparkling 4-for-18 rate against Duke last week.
“I use a simplistic thought process – it comes down to whether or not we’re getting a pass rush,” Rhule said. “Whether it’s Ogor or whatever, we had five sacks (against Duke), and we probably could’ve had three or four more. When you have a pass rush, it speeds up the offense, and that’s why we’re winning on third down.”
On the flip side, Baylor’s offensive line has been in shambles due to injuries and retirements. Consequently, the Bears have allowed eight sacks, tied for 98th in the country. If you’re not able to protect the quarterback and give him time to survey the field, it’s hard to be productive on any down, much less that all-important third-down play.
It’s also a mathematical fact that a team has a statistically greater chance to convert on 3rd-and-4 than 3rd-and-10. Coaches call such situations “3rd-and-Manageable,” and it puts the impetus on the offense to be better on first and second down, in order to limit the third-and-long situations.
“We’re not in 3rd-and-3 or 3rd-and-4, so that’s a function of our inability to run the football right now,” Rhule said.
Help is coming in that regard. Baylor will get back Terence Williams for Saturday’s Big 12 opener against Oklahoma. The junior running back, who rushed for 1,048 yards a year ago, has been relegated to spectator status in the Bears’ first three games as he has recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.
Williams said that it’s been frustrating to watch from the sideline, when he knew he could help. From his view, the Bears have been beating themselves as much as they’ve allowed the opponent to make plays.
“We make too many mistakes, missed assignments and penalties,” Williams said. “That’s where we’re hurt most of the time. Once we fix that we’ll be good.”
It’s hard enough to win without trying to dodge all that yellow laundry on the field. The flags have particularly been a killer for the Bears, who rank 117th nationally while drawing 86.3 yards in penalty markoffs per game.
Rhule has taken ownership for many of Baylor’s struggles in the 0-3 start. But he also noted that the coaches can’t make the plays for the team, either.
“I’ll stand up here and say sometimes that’s on me,” Rhule said. “No one has coached no penalties harder than I have and harder than our staff has. At some point our guys need to step up and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to stop jumping offside.’ And I say that with love, I don’t say that calling them out.
“You wanna win? Go win. … To me, the number one thing we need to correct on this team is our third-down and penalty issues.”
Baylor coach Matt Rhule said that cornerback Jordan Tolbert will not play in this week’s game against Oklahoma, as he is still not ready following offseason shoulder surgery. But tight end Jordan Feuerbacher is expected to see action after suffering a broken left hand in the season opener against Liberty.