Following last weekend’s 59-16 loss to No. 10 Oklahoma State, Baylor coach Matt Rhule is naturally worried about his winless team’s psyche.
The Bears are 0-6 this season and have lost 12 of their last 13 dating back to last year. The only light in that darkness was a 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl.
The last thing Rhule wants is for his players to start thinking they can’t win as they begin the second half of the season against No. 23 West Virginia at 7 p.m. in Saturday’s homecoming game at McLane Stadium.
“The (Oklahoma State) game got away from us, and if there’s something we have to correct, it’s avoiding that feeling of ‘Oh here we go again’ when one bad play leads to three bad plays,” Rhule said. “As we continue to work on their psyche and continue to work on the way they look at the game, that can’t happen. We can never get used to losing. We can never allow those thoughts to enter our brains, because bad thoughts lead to bad actions.”
A win over the Mountaineers would cure a lot of Baylor’s problems. Rhule believes his team will be excited to be back home for its first game at McLane Stadium in nearly a month.
The Bears played their best game of the season against the then-No. 3 Sooners in their last game at McLane Stadium on Sept. 23, staging a significant rally before dropping a 49-41 decision. Since then the Bears have dropped a 33-20 decision at Kansas State before the blowout in Stillwater to fall to 0-3 in the Big 12.
“I know they’re hurting and beat up and mentally, struggling in terms of wondering why this is happening and why we’re going through this,” Rhule said. “I said to our players this is probably one of the toughest times of their lives. The last six regular season games last year didn’t go the way they wanted, but they found a way to win the bowl game. Then our new staff comes in and we’re asking them to do so many things that are different and harder, in school and study hall and football. And they’re doing all these things and they’re not getting the results that they want, so it’s natural to ask why.”
Though the Bears haven’t broken through with a win, Rhule believes they are playing better football. Even in the 43-point loss to the Cowboys, the Bears opened the game with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that came mostly on the ground.
Trailing 14-10 in the second quarter, the Bears allowed several big plays that put them into a 35-10 hole at halftime. But Rhule liked the way his players continued to fight in the second half.
“I said it after the game: These kids are unbelievably mentally tough,” Rhule said. “They’ve been through a lot, and they continue to fight and scratch and claw, and I’m proud of those guys that go out and represent us on Saturdays.”
Rhule hopes a big homecoming crowd shows up to support the Bears. He thinks it’s important that fans stay behind the team even as they struggle to break through with their first win.
“I’m taking the whole team to the homecoming pep rally on Friday night,” Rhule said. “I want them to see all the people that believe in them and support them and believe in Baylor. I hope our fans come out and cheer for our kids. I hope our fans go to the Bear Walk (before the game) and slap those kids on the back, because those kids, even in the last two weeks, have endured a lot and continue to show up and represent their school with pride.”
For the Bears to even have a shot to upset the Mountaineers, a defense that allowed 747 yards against Oklahoma State will have to improve significantly.
The Cowboys have the best offense in the nation but the Mountaineers (4-2, 2-1) aren’t far behind. Quarterback Will Grier has passed for 2,092 yards and a nation’s best 21 touchdowns. Gary Jennings leads the Big 12 with 48 catches for 586 yards while David Sills has caught 39 passes for 601 yards and leads the country with 12 touchdown receptions.
Balancing out the offense is running back Justin Crawford who ranks second in the Big 12 with 609 yards rushing with seven touchdowns. West Virginia is averaging 547.2 yards and 44.2 points per game.
“Will Grier is fantastic, Coach (Dana) Holgorsen does a great job, and David Sills is someone I’ve known for a long time, and they do a great job offensively,” Rhule said. “They have great receivers, just like Oklahoma State has great receivers. They run the football and are rugged up front.”
Baylor hopes to continue to run as effectively as it did against Oklahoma State. The Bears rolled up 219 yards rushing as Terence Williams picked up 95 on 10 carries and John Lovett added 62 yards on 11 carries before going out with a toe injury. Lovett is questionable for Saturday’s game.
“I think Terence was really fantastic on Saturday, he played a great game,” Rhule said. “Lovett played a great game early, and (Trestan) Ebner popped a couple runs. Had that score not gotten away from us, I think we would have probably gotten up near 300 yards. Hopefully we can continue that against a good West Virginia defense.”
While Baylor’s running game was productive, quarterback Zach Smith struggled as he hit 11 of 28 passes for 127 yards and an interception. Wide receiver Denzel Mims came into the game battling illness and caught just two passes for 20 years. Pooh Stricklin made three catches for 41 yards before going out with a sprained foot that will likely keep him out against West Virginia.
Tony Nicholson stepped up against the Cowboys with a team-high four catches for 57 yards.
“It was unfortunate on Saturday that we were depleted at receiver,” Rhule said. “You take from our initial group of receivers: Blake Lynch is playing defense now, Chris Platt was hurt, and Mims had the flu and wasn’t able to do much on Saturday. Our plan was to run the ball and get the ball in Mims’ hands, but he was sick and couldn’t get going.”