Since Matt Rhule arrived on the Baylor campus, people have gone out of their way to note the differences between him and Art Briles.
Rhule talks fast, like he’s trying to orally navigate New York City traffic, while the Texas native Briles’ delivery was slower and filled with colorful analogies. Briles preferred to play fast, however, while Rhule has tapped the brakes on Baylor’s breakneck offensive tempo a bit.
In one way the two men are very much the same: Neither is afraid to go for it on fourth down.
Baylor has attempted 27 fourth-down plays on the season, which is tied with Northwestern for the second-most attempts in the country. Only Syracuse, with 28 fourth-down tries, has eschewed the punt formation more.
The Bears have delivered a mixed bag of results on those plays. They’ve picked up the first down just 13 times in 27 tries, a 48.2 percent conversion rate that ranks 77th nationally.
Even though the Bears have gone for it a lot, Rhule said he gives each situation some thought and doesn’t necessarily bend to the will of the offensive players, who almost always want to stay on the field.
“I think it kind of depends on how well we’re doing on defense, and how well we’re doing offensively,” Rhule said. “There was twice where the kids wanted me to go for it on fourth down early in that (Kansas) game and we punted the ball.”
Against Kansas, the Bears handled their business when given another offensive snap on fourth down. Facing 4th-and-goal from the Jayhawk 1-yard-line late in the third quarter, Rhule opted to keep the field goal team on the sideline. Terence Williams delivered, plowing into the end zone for a touchdown that pushed the Bears’ lead to 28-9 with 2:51 left in the quarter.
Then, in the fourth quarter, with a chance to “put our foot down,” the Bears went for it again on 4th-and-4 from the Kansas 15. Quarterback Charlie Brewer scrambled five yards for the first down, then three plays later he hit Ish Wainright on a touchdown toss that essentially iced the game.
Williams said he approaches a fourth-down carry just as he would any other play.
“It’s always the same. Whatever it is, you’ve got to get it,” he said. “You’ve got to do whatever you have to do to get past that line.”
Williams said that he and his teammates don’t do a lot of campaigning when it’s 4th-and-short. He figures Rhule is aggressive enough on his own, and will make the right call.
But Williams appreciates his coach’s willingness to give the offense a shot, because he believes it displays a level of trust.
“It really just shows that he knows we can get the first down,” Williams said. “It feels good to know he actually trusts us with stuff like that. … He just believes. It’s off of what he wants. As long as he believes that we can do it, I feel like he’ll call it every time.”
Rhule said that fourth down requires a specific mindset from one’s offense. He wants his players to display the right balance between tenacity and caution – between taking care of the ball and knowing that there’s a line to gain and you’ve got to get there.
“I think the final part of it is just your players understanding,” Rhule said. “We try to be very disciplined about not reaching the ball across the goal line, not reaching the ball out, but understanding that on fourth down, every ball has to get past the sticks. I think it’s just a mindset kind of like Coach (Bill) Belichick: understanding the situations, understanding how to excel in those situations and not have any pressure when you do it.”
Will Rhule remain as aggressive on fourth down once Baylor improves and starts winning more games? That’s a question for a future discussion. Yet when you’re 1-8 on the season and you’ve had to play catch-up in games as many times as the Bears have been forced to this year, going for it on fourth down seems to be the least of your worries.
“We realize where we are right now,” Rhule said. “We have to steal a possession or go for it on fourth down to try to find a way to win.”
Freshman Charlie Brewer will start at quarterback for the Bears against Texas Tech, but sophomore Zach Smith will be available in an emergency situation after missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury, head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday. Wide receiver Tony Nicholson is probable to play after being out with an ankle injury.