A lot of skepticism surrounded the Texas Longhorns when they were ranked in the preseason Top 25 after a mediocre debut year under Tom Herman.
They seemed to prove doubters right when they opened with an uninspired 34-29 loss to Maryland.
But since then the Longhorns have reeled off five straight wins, including last weekend’s 48-45 thriller over Oklahoma that vaulted them into the Associated Press top 10 for the first time since 2010.
The No. 9 Longhorns look like a confident, motivated team heading into Saturday’s game against Baylor at 2:30 p.m. at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin.
“They were obviously extremely impressive on Saturday beating Oklahoma,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule. “That’s three Top 25 wins for them. They’re playing really, really well right now, and we have a lot of respect for them and their players and their coaching staff, and know it will be a great opportunity for us.”
After struggling earlier in the season, Texas sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger has looked more impressive as the season has progressed.
As well as Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray has performed this season, Ehlinger was clearly his equal in Texas’ win over the Sooners as he hit 24 of 35 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns while showing his versatility by rushing for 72 yards and three scores.
“Sam is a great competitor,” Rhule said. “He brings a lot to the table in terms of his ability to run the football. We played Coach Herman and that staff when they were at Houston and Greg Ward was just a difference maker with his ability to run the football. Watching Sam, he can run zone read and scramble and he is extremely accurate, and he takes advantage of his big receivers. He is playing very well and is in a system that allows him to excel.”
With last weekend’s 37-34 win over Kansas State at McLane Stadium, the Bears improved to 4-2 to move within two wins of attaining bowl eligibility.
For the Bears to have any shot of winning on Texas’ home turf, they’ll have to limit big plays. That’s been a huge issue the last two weeks as Oklahoma averaged 40.3 yards on Murray’s six touchdown passes while Kansas State averaged 47.2 yards on four touchdown runs.
Rhule said Baylor’s defensive line has been solid, but he wants to see the linebacking corps and secondary play at a higher level.
“We just have to play better,” Rhule said. “As dumb as that may sound, as simple as that might sound, guys have to get off blocks and make some plays. We’re not really doing that at the highest level right now. We blitzed the run (against KSU), we man-blitzed the run, we did a bunch of different things. But it’s not any one guy, it’s not any one thing. And to me, I think it can be corrected, and it needs to be corrected moving forward.”
After doing an adequate job containing the Sooners’ rushing attack, the Wildcats amassed 319 yards rushing against the Bears, including a career-high 250 yards by Alex Barnes on just 22 carries. Barnes broke loose for touchdown runs of 55, 48 and 34 yards, while quarterback Skylar Thompson delivered a 52-yard touchdown run.
Baylor will have to deal with several dynamic Texas offensive threats. Receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson have made four touchdown catches apiece while Keaontay Ingram and Tre Watson have combined for nearly 600 yards rushing.
Baylor freshman cornerback Kalon Barnes and safety Christian Morgan delivered strong performances in their first career starts against Kansas State. Morgan intercepted a fourth-quarter pass while Barnes looked confident covering Kansas State’s receivers.
With junior cornerback Grayland Arnold expected to miss his third straight game with an ankle injury, Barnes will likely see a lot of time against the Longhorns. Barnes was a state championship sprinter at Silsbee High School who came to Baylor as a receiver, but began playing cornerback during the preseason.
“Kalon runs a 10-flat 100-meter dash,” Rhule said. “It is easy to stick a guy out at corner who runs that fast. He played receiver the first three weeks of camp and I hope that we get him back on that side of the ball. But with our group of receivers right now we want him to play both ways, but right now he has earned his spot to start on defense.”
Rhule said running back John Lovett will be available against Texas after missing the Kansas State game. Lovett went through concussion protocol last week following a head injury against Oklahoma.
With Lovett out, Trestan Ebner rushed for a career-high 100 yards against the Wildcats while freshman Craig “Sqwirl” Williams contributed a key 21-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the first score of his college career in his first game. Under new NCAA rules, players can participate in up to four games without burning their redshirt.
“What a burst he gave us,” Rhule said. “Really one of the best moments for me in that game was just seeing all the older guys celebrate with Sqwirl. They deeply, deeply respect him. We’ll try to use him in spots and kind of make a decision as we go of are we going to use his year up or just try to play four games. We have a lot of guys playing running back.”