Remembering his first trip to Lawrence two years ago, Baylor coach Matt Rhule recalls the relief he and his team felt after pulling off a 38-9 win over Kansas.
It was Rhule’s first win at Baylor after opening his 2017 debut season with eight straight losses.
The game also signaled the coming of quarterback Charlie Brewer, who threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns and even caught a 20-yard pass in his first start as a freshman for the Bears.
“Oh, there was a whole lot of relief,” Rhule said. “I think the guys were excited. As we were going through that season, a lot of people were laughing at us. That was like hey, I didn’t want them to have another week where they lost a game and got laughed at. I wanted them to find a way to win.”
On Saturday, the Bears will return to Kansas’ Memorial Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff under much different circumstances.
After finishing 1-11 in Rhule’s first season, the No. 11 Bears can reverse that record with a win over the Jayhawks to close the regular season. Baylor (10-1, 7-1) has already clinched a berth against No. 7 Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game Dec. 7 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Rhule isn’t buying any suggestion that the Bears could lack motivation against the last-place Jayhawks (3-8, 1-7). He believes his players will have the same focus that they’ve had every week during their remarkable season. Ranked ninth in the latest College Football Playoff standings, a win would also keep the Bears from falling completely out of contention.
“I told them everybody is going to think next week is championship week, but to me this week is championship week,” Rhule said. “You can’t call yourself a champion if you don’t play championship football in November. I thought we approached championship football last week at times (in a 24-10 win over Texas). So this is a week for us to improve and get a lot better. Obviously, there’s not something tangible maybe riding on the game. But I think they understand this is a big game for us and we have to go play really well.”
The Bears had to deal with an unusual week of practice since Thanksgiving fell on Thursday. Following Wednesday morning’s practice, Rhule allowed his players to go home for Thanksgiving before they returned to Waco for a walk-through session Thursday night, and then flew north to Kansas on Friday.
“I think they’re excited to play, excited to go on the road one more time,” Rhule said. “They understand the challenge that lies ahead, so I think we’ve had a really good week.”
Rhule said the Bears followed a similar practice schedule that they did last year on Thanksgiving week. The Bears came back from the holiday and beat Texas Tech, 35-24, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington to clinch the Texas Bowl berth.
“With the way our schedule is laid out because Thursday is a meet and walk-through day for us, it actually fits perfectly,” Rhule said. “I had never done it this way until last year, and we had a good result against Texas Tech. So I think the schedule is a plus.”
Though the Jayhawks are in the Big 12 cellar, they’re not the pushovers they used to be. First-year coach Les Miles, who built successful programs at Oklahoma State and LSU, has made them a more competitive team.
The Jayhawks have wins over Boston College and Texas Tech, and have come close to winning other games. Last week in Ames, Iowa State pulled off a 41-31 win but the Jayhawks made the Cyclones sweat it out until the end.
Baylor’s defense has been the best in the Big 12 this season, allowing a league-low 19.5 points per game while recording a league-high 38 sacks and forcing 22 turnovers. But the Jayhawks’ offense will be a challenge.
Carter Stanley has passed for 2,569 yards and 24 touchdowns, and Andrew Parchment has made 60 catches for 788 yards and six scores while Stephon Robinson has caught 45 passes for 727 yards and eight scores. Kansas’ running game is led by explosive Pooka Williams, who has rushed for 945 yards and three scores.
“I think our guys turn on the film and see Carter Stanley playing really well, they see Parchment playing really well, they see Pooka,” Rhule said. “There isn’t a player in the Big 12 that our team has more respect for than Pooka. They see the challenge on defense.”
After going out of last weekend’s game against the Longhorns with 11:33 remaining after taking a hard blow to the head from a Texas defender, Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer has been cleared to play against Kansas and has looked good in practice this week.
Brewer also rolled his ankle against Texas, but has shown good maneuverability in practice.
“He’s great,” Rhule said. “An ankle is one of those things where it can get stepped on and all of a sudden it can start bothering you. So we’ve had to really accelerate Gerry (Bohanon), and (Jacob) Zeno has gotten reps this week. And I think that’s really good for both those guys and their development. But yeah, Charlie’s ready to go.”
Rhule not only respects Miles’ legacy as a college football coach, he’s a devotee of his ESPN-plus show “Miles to Go” that has documented his first season as the Jayhawks’ head coach.
“I watch that show,” Rhule said. “Along the way, they stopped talking about winning and losing, and they started talking about ‘Hey, let’s get better every week.’ That’s all I talk about. I don’t talk to our guys about ‘Hey, we’ve got to win this game.’ I talk about let’s get better every week. They’re talking about the process in its purest form and that’s why they’re improving.
Miles has admired the job Rhule has done from taking Baylor from one win in 2017 to 10 this year.
“What they’ve done is stuck with their guys, and they’ve got a very talented quarterback,” Miles said. “What they’ve done is gone from a 1-11 team in 2017 to 7-6 last year and 10-1 this current season, which frankly I think is a path a lot of teams would like to take.”