If there was any college football team that desperately needed a bye week it was winless Baylor.
The schedule won’t get any easier with powerful Oklahoma State coming up Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Stillwater. But Baylor coach Matt Rhule believes his team will play with a renewed sense of purpose following an 0-5 start.
“We’re happy to have a chance to play the No. 14 team in the country, a tremendous team in Oklahoma State,” Rhule said. “I feel like our team took some steps over the bye week. I feel like a couple guys got healthy, and I think our mentality is continuing to get tougher. We’re growing up a little bit, and hopefully we’ll continue to be a better team than we were last week.”
Rhule expects sophomore running back JaMycal Hasty to be ready to play after missing the last four games with a knee injury suffered in the season opener against Liberty.
For the first time this season, Baylor’s running back corps will be completely healthy. Rhule said freshman John Lovett will start after rushing for a team-high 321 yards and three touchdowns, including a 74-yard scoring run in a 33-20 loss to Kansas State on Sept. 30. But Hasty, Terence Williams and Trestan Ebner will contribute.
“John’s growing but I think that long run showed what he can do,” Rhule said. “JaMycal practiced last week limited and then he practiced today, so we think he’s ready to go, and if so, we’re going to use him. Terence is sort of coming along. I think he’s getting healthier now, so we have four backs that are up and ready.”
Since the Bears rank ninth in the Big 12 with 118.4 yards rushing per game, establishing a stronger ground game is vital to break through for the first win.
“Who we use the most will probably depend on who practices the best, and once we get into the game, we’ll try to go with the hot hand if there’s somebody that’s playing at a high, high level,” Rhule said. “So we’ll get into the game and see who’s feeling it, who’s seeing it, and we have to do a good job as coaches of trying to get those guys into a rhythm by giving them the football a little bit more than what we have.”
Tight end Ish Wainright is back at practice after missing the last few weeks with an illness. Senior tight end Jordan Feuerbacher is also ready to play but Rob Saulin will miss the rest of the season following shoulder surgery, and is expected to apply for a medical redshirt.
“Thankfully, the rule in the NCAA is that if you play in no more than four of the first six games, you can apply for a redshirt for that season,” Rhule said. “Rob played in four games and will have surgery, so he’ll have that experience of playing this year, but he’ll have a chance to play next year as well after the surgery.”
While Baylor’s running game should be in good shape, several safeties are questionable for this weekend due to injuries, including Taion Sells, Chris Miller and Davion Hall. Henry Black, Verkedric Vaughns and Rajah Preciado could see a lot of playing time against the Cowboys.
Facing the Cowboys (4-1) with an injury riddled secondary will be a major challenge. Mason Rudolph is one of the top quarterbacks in the country as he’s completed 67.6 percent for 1,909 yards and 16 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 173 attempts.
James Washington has been the most dangerous deep threat in the Big 12 as he’s made 28 catches for 647 yards and five touchdowns. He’s complemented by Marcell Ateman with 25 catches for 449 yards and three scores and Jalen McCleskey with 21 catches for 306 yards and four touchdowns.
Oklahoma State’s rushing attack is also a force as Justice Hill ranks among the Big 12 leaders with 516 yards and four touchdowns. The Cowboys are tied for the Big 12 lead with 46.8 points per game.
“Oklahoma State has as good of an offense as you’ll see in the country,” Rhule said. “James Washington is a dynamic playmaker and Mason Rudolph is accurate. And more importantly than anything else, he’s calling the game with the line and getting them the right play. He looks like a pro quarterback. And what’s not talked about enough is their run game, which is fantastic. They do a great job up front with a physical, rugged offensive line, and Justice Hill is really a special back for a sophomore. It’ll be a challenge for our defense.”
Baylor’s defense ranks ninth in the Big 12 by allowing 471.8 yards and 36.2 points per game. Preseason all-Big 12 defensive lineman K.J. Smith has missed the last four games with shin splints, and isn’t expected to return any time soon.
“He’s getting better which is good, but that’s not like a contact injury,” Rhule said. “That’s just repetition of him moving around and stuff on his legs, leading to shin splints and possibly stress fractures. We’re just trying to make sure we take care of him for his future, and don’t hurt him. We don’t want to rush anybody back, and we certainly don’t want to rush K.J. back with that injury. Hopefully, he’ll come back at the end of the year, and if not, we want to make sure we leave him out there as healthy as he can be.”
After Drew Galitz went down with a season ending knee injury against Kansas State, Baylor held open tryouts for punter. Kicker Connor Martin will handle punting duties after averaging 42 yards on three punts against Kansas State.
“I think Connor will be ready to go if we need him,” Rhule said. “Peter Webster has done it before, so he’s our backup. James Lynch is a freshman defensive tackle. He was an all-state punter. He just hasn’t done it, so I don’t know that he’d be ready this week. I think Connor can do a good job. It’s just more the strain that he puts on his leg of kicking off, punting, and doing field goals. That’s hard.”