When Baylor’s Grayland Arnold launched his body at Kansas ball carrier Stephon Robinson Jr. late in the third quarter of the Bears’ win over the Jayhawks, the sideline erupted.
It wasn’t just the timely nature of the play that enlivened Arnold’s teammates and coaches, though that was certainly part of it. Rather, Arnold’s willingness to lay it all out there, his tenacity in lowering the boom, punctuated a message that BU coach Matt Rhule and his assistants have been preaching for the past two years. And it did so with an exclamation point.
The message? Well, with apologies to Olivia Newton-John, it’s essentially this: Let’s. Get. Physical.
“I’m so proud of Grayland for, not that he stopped him, but just the effort that he gave and the physicality he tried to show,” Rhule said. “Because when you play like that, eventually you figure it out. You eventually find a way to win the game.”
Arnold’s hit undoubtedly helped preserve Baylor’s win. At the time, Kansas faced a 4th-and-9 and a 26-7 deficit, and desperately needed a score to keep its hopes at a rally intact. Jayhawks quarterback Preston Bender connected with Robinson on a swing pass toward the sideline. Baylor’s Christian Morgan started to grab Robinson around the legs in a tackle attempt when Arnold lowered his shoulder, swooped in and knocked the KU player out of bounds, just two yards shy of the first-down marker.
Rhule called it “the play of the day.” But, once again, the coach admired it as much for what it represented in the bigger picture. It was reflective of Baylor’s overall improved effort defensively, especially coming off a lackluster showing the week before against Duke.
Hours after the game, Rhule’s phone was still blowing up.
“After you win, you get lots of text messages, and I appreciate them all,” the coach said. “But I got some from football people who I really trust. They talked about watching the game and the defense looking fast, looking physical.”
The increased energy arrived long before game day. Baylor’s coaches noticed it from the players in practice all week, as they looked to scrub the bitter taste of the Duke defeat from their pallets. Rhule prefers physical practices anyway. Last week’s workouts more closely resembled what he wants to see all the time.
“Definitely in practice we’re trying to be more physical because practice will be an implication of what you’re going to do in the game,” said freshman safety J.T. Woods. “So we’ve been ramping up in practice lately and adding that extra step to our game. … There was a lot of energy going into that (Kansas) game and I think it went through the whole game. That energy is going to stay in the locker room as we travel to Norman.”
Rhule, defensive coordinator Phil Snow and the other coaches also like to emphasize the importance of a rough and relentless defense in their film room sessions. They call them “lion plays.” A lion play appears when a defender shows tremendous effort, when he is in the correct position, or when he simply makes a fantastic hit or pass breakup.
It’s not Animal Planet. To the coaches, it’s better.
“We show a lion tape, like lion plays, ferocious, physical plays,” Rhule said. “(Arnold’s hit) wasn’t just a lion play, but it was a critical play. Lots of guys make lots of plays, but who makes the plays when the hat’s on the head and the game, the play, the series is on the line? So we talk a lot about those things.”
Such plays demand proper technique, as well as a significant effort. But the most essential ingredient to a “lion play” may be the subsequent roar. Meaning this — when one guy, whether on defense, offense or special teams — makes a play, it shouldn’t go unnoticed by his teammates. Rhule wants his players sprinting over to slap a guy on the helmet or congratulate him with a high-five.
“Last week on defense I feel we all played good and we all got the checks and were all on the same page on defense as a whole. We all came together and were feeding off the offense’s energy and the offense was feeding off ours, so it all came together as a team to play as one,” safety Chris Miller said. “You could feel it in the stadium, on the bench and on the sideline. When one guy misses a play, you go pick him back up, and you do it again next play.
“We plan to carry that on and use that momentum.”
It also requires simple hustle to play the way Baylor wants. Rhule acknowledged that the Bears played listless and demonstrated a lack of energy in their final nonconference game against Duke, particularly in the first half.
Going forward, that can’t happen, he said.
“Part of being physical is running to the ball,” Rhule said. “The week before we kind of jogged to the ball. On Saturday, I thought we ran with a purpose. That’s what we’re still trying to get the guys (to understand). We don’t want you to run to the ball for us, so you don’t get yelled at. We want you to run to the ball because you think you can make a play that will affect the game.”
BEAR FACTS: BU coach Matt Rhule said that juco transfer Johncarlo Valentin will start at left guard against Oklahoma in place of Xavier Newman, who is out with an ankle injury. “Johncarlo is a big, strong man who has taken reps at guard the last couple of weeks, and he’ll be prepared,” Rhule said.