Matt Rhule didn’t leave a successful program at Temple because he thought he’d waltz into Baylor and start winning championships immediately.
The reality was that he was taking over a program that was on a downward trend, depth depleted, and trying to escape the shadow of a sexual assault scandal.
“I didn’t come here saying to myself, ‘Boy, this will be fun,’ ” Rhule said. “I came here saying, ‘This is going to be epic. This is going to be awesome. This is going to be a process.’ I really believe God put me here not so things like this didn’t happen. I think God put me here because things like this are going to happen.”
Despite the 0-2 start, Rhule expects his team to grow from the difficulties they’re dealing with and emerge a better team. The Bears have now lost eight of their last nine games dating back to the middle of the 2016 season, with the only win coming against Boise State in the Cactus Bowl.
“I’m upset that we’re 0-2,” Rhule said. “You know what, I couldn’t be more upset, but I’m proud to walk off that field. When we’re a good football team, those kids that are crying in the locker room now, they’ll be tough to beat because they’ll have gone through the process.”
Rhule is well acquainted with rebuilding college football programs after his four-year stint as Temple’s head coach. In his first year in 2013, the Owls lost their first six games before picking up a win over Army. The Owls finished 2-10 that season.
The Owls improved to 6-6 in Rhule’s second season before breaking through with 10-4 and 10-3 records in his last two seasons at Temple before accepting the Baylor job last December.
Rhule took over a Baylor program that still had considerable talent but little depth. The Bears have been plagued by injuries to key players such as veteran running backs Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty and cornerback Grayland Arnold. Both Williams and Arnold are expected to return in the next two to three weeks while Hasty’s return from a knee sprain could take longer.
The Bears played 14 true freshmen in Saturday’s 17-10 loss to UTSA, including five starters: center Ryan Miller, running back John Lovett, defensive end B.J. Thompson, linebacker Jalen Pitre and cornerback Harrison Hand.
“You shouldn’t have to go out there and play 14 freshmen,” Rhule said. “If you told me before the year Terence and JaMycal were going to be out, are you serious? But I love watching Lovett play. And I was proud to see (running back) Trestan Ebner out there. And I know there’s going to be a day when we’re going to walk out there and JaMycal, Terence, Ebner and Lovett, they’re all going to be standing out there, and people will be in trouble.”
But Baylor’s schedule will get much tougher, beginning with Saturday’s first road game against Duke in Durham, N.C. The Bears will then open Big 12 play with a gauntlet of Top 25 teams. After facing No. 2 Oklahoma on Sept. 23 at McLane Stadium, the Bears will play road games at No. 18 Kansas State on Sept. 30 and No. 9 Oklahoma State on Oct. 14.
The Blue Devils improved to 2-0 with a 41-17 thrashing of Northwestern in which quarterback Daniel Jones passed for 305 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 108 yards and two more scores. Duke’s defense was also tremendous as it limited Northwestern to 191 yards total offense while collecting four sacks and three turnovers.
The Bears will have to improve dramatically to win any of the upcoming games. Their offense was ineffective against UTSA as Anu Solomon hit just 10 of 26 passes for 121 yards with one interception and one touchdown. The Bears finished with 137 yards rushing and 274 yards total offense.
Solomon had little protection as UTSA sacked him four times, and he had difficulty hitting receivers with the deep ball. But Rhule decided to stick with Solomon instead of replacing him with sophomore quarterback Zach Smith.
“I have a lot of confidence in Zach, so the thought at a lot of positions crossed my mind about getting other people in,” Rhule said. “But that wasn’t the time or place, and we’ll go back and watch the tape and see what we see.
“I look at things as sort of an overall picture,” Rhule said. “I wasn’t pleased with that. We need to start catching the football better and we need to protect. That’s one of the things I was afraid to have to battle with, and we’d better get a lot better quickly as we start to face better teams.”
After allowing 585 yards against Liberty, Baylor’s defense showed improvement by holding UTSA to 375 total yards.
But the Roadrunners controlled the clock for 38 minutes and 52 seconds and converted seven of 16 third-down opportunities.
“I thought we played with a lot more passion and energy on defense,” Rhule said. “I thought the defense got a lot better as the game went on. Some guys stepped up and made plays. It showed a tremendous resolve by the defensive kids just to even give us a chance at the end to go down and even have a chance to win.”
Sophomore middle linebacker Clay Johnston led the Bears with 10 tackles including one for a 4-yard loss.
Defensive end Xavier Jones recorded 1½ sacks and Eric Ogor had a sack for an 11-yard loss.
But the Bears still had difficulty covering receivers as UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm hit 15 of 20 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 98 yards on 12 carries.
Baylor also played undisciplined football as it was flagged for 10 penalties for 98 yards.
“Before you can think about winning, you have to play winning football,” Rhule said. “To have to call time outs because of substitution issues, to have as many penalties as we did, that’s just not winning football. That was one of our goals was not to be a highly penalized team. That’s always back on me, and we’ll get it corrected.”
Even as the schedule gets considerably tougher, Rhule is convinced his team will keep trying to find ways to break through for wins.
“We’re going to keep fighting for the older guys,” Rhule said. “We’re going to keep fighting for the seniors. We are going to learn from these tough, tough heartbreaking losses.”