Baylor coach Matt Rhule has spent a great deal of time at McLane Stadium since arriving in Waco last December.
His team has practiced and held scrimmages at the stadium, and the Bears signed autographs on the concourse for “Meet the Bears” two weekends ago. He’s been proud to show off Baylor football’s jewel to recruits whenever they come to town.
But on Saturday night, Rhule will coach his first game at McLane Stadium when the Bears face Liberty at 6 p.m. in the season opener.
The Bears haven’t won a game at McLane since Oct. 15, 2016, when they stormed to a 49-7 win over Kansas. Baylor lost its last two home games to TCU and Kansas State, and Rhule wants to change that trend immediately.
“We’ve done a lot in that stadium, but we haven’t won a game in there in 46 weeks,” Rhule said. “It’s been a long time. My goal is to get back in that stadium and go find a way to get a win and make sure of that for all of our fans and families and friends and our players.”
The Baylor players are anxious to play after surviving the longest preseason camp of their careers. The Bears began practice on July 27 and have had to learn new offensive and defensive systems and digest a huge playbook.
“We’re pretty anxious to get on the field and play somebody other than ourselves,” said Baylor junior receiver Chris Platt. “We started an extra week earlier than we usually have before. We’ve been competing against each other, iron vs. iron. We’re doing whatever we can to get ready.”
Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon will make his debut for the Bears after he was named the starting quarterback Tuesday following a heated competition against sophomore Zach Smith and freshman Charlie Brewer that began in spring drills and continued through preseason camp.
Rhule chose Solomon to start because of his experience, mobility and leadership. But Rhule has confidence in all three scholarship quarterbacks.
“It was a tough decision because I thought all three quarterbacks played really well,” Rhule said. “Anu just has a little bit of poise and a lot of experience and I think he brings a little bit of leadership, and he brings the ability to kind of move in the pocket. With a young offensive line that’s something we might need.”
This will also be the first game for numerous true freshmen who have been pressed into duty early in their careers due to Baylor’s lack of veteran depth.
Shortly after he arrived in Waco upon taking the Baylor job, Matt Rhule scheduled a breakfast meeting with Jalen Pitre.
True freshman center Ryan Miller, cornerback Harrison Hand and linebacker Jalen Pitre will start while receivers R.J. Sneed and Gavin Holmes, running back John Lovett, offensive lineman Xavier Newman and middle linebacker Terrel Bernard are listed on the second team on the depth chart.
Redshirt freshman walk-on safety Jairon McVea will start at free safety since senior Taion Sells is serving a three-game suspension for an unspecified incident during the summer. With two freshmen starting in the secondary, getting a strong pass rush from an experienced defensive line will be crucial.
“You’re never going to be great on defense if you don’t have sack production,” Rhule said. “It starts with stopping the run. You have to be able to stop the run and you have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback. I’m confident in our guys playing in the secondary. Harrison is young so he’s going to make some rookie mistakes, but he’s got a tremendous future. Anytime you play freshmen, you know there’s going to be growing pains.”
Though Liberty is an FCS school, it has a veteran offense that returns seven starters from last year’s 6-5 team.
Quarterback Steven Calvert threw for 1,931 yards and 15 touchdowns last season while Todd Macon rushed for 620 yards and seven scores and receiver B.J. Farrow made 30 catches for 281 yards and three touchdowns. The Flames return three offensive line starters in Dontae Duff, Sam Isaacson and James Passmore.
Coached by former Nebraska quarterback and Kansas coach Turner Gill, the Flames have a reputation for playing bruising defense. Six defensive starters return from last season, including lineman Juwan Wells who made 79 tackles, linebacker Solomon McGinty who made 52 tackles and safety Corbin Jackson who collected 49 tackles.
When he coached at Temple, Rhule faced Gill’s Buffalo squads from 2006-09, and was impressed with the physicality they showed.
“My recollection of going against Coach Gill when he was at Buffalo were, number one, his defenses were really aggressive,” Rhule said. “They’d get after you. They’d talk to you. Offensively, they always had really efficient quarterbacks. They’d run the ball and get downhill on you. I think the biggest things were that they were tough teams that didn’t beat themselves and went out and competed.”
Brian Nance’s reality is much different than most of his Baylor teammates.
The Bears will try to take advantage of Liberty’s run defense that finished 106th out of 122 FCS teams in the country last season by allowing 219.5 yards per game. While sophomore JaMycal Hasty will likely be Baylor’s featured back, freshmen Lovett and Dru Dixon could also see considerable action.
But Rhule doesn’t expect the Flames to roll over just because they’re an FCS school facing a FBS school from a Power Five conference.
“They’re not a team that’s going to come here and back down,” Rhule said. “They’re going to come out here and challenge you. They’re going to play press-man, and get in your face. That’s my kind of team. I like teams that get up there and challenge you. He certainly does that.”
The Bears understand the importance of winning their first two home games against Liberty and UTSA next weekend because the schedule will get much tougher beginning with a Sept. 16 date against Duke in Durham, N.C.
“You always want to get the first game at home in front of our own crowd to try to pick up the momentum for the season,” Hasty said. “We want to score points and win. We want to come out playing hard and fast and being physical and just try to get a victory at home.”
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