In Matt Rhule’s first two years at Baylor, the Bears knew the feeling of drawing so close to a victory that they could practically taste it, only to see it slip through their collective fingers.
In year three, they’ve learned how to grab hold and hang on.
It requires a certain composure to pull out a close game. In the 2017 and ’18 seasons, the Bears came up lacking in that regard. Baylor went 3-6 in one-possession games over Rhule’s first two seasons. This year, the 11th-ranked Bears are 4-0 in such contests.
What gives? What’s made the difference?
“Maturity,” Rhule said. “I think in all these close games we’re pretty even with those teams. I like to learn from other coaches, and I listened to Coach (Gary) Patterson, and he said something like, ‘We are just good enough to beat everybody and we are just good enough to lose to everybody.’ … I think we are a team that isn’t going to overwhelm you early. We are not there yet.”
It’s true – the Bears may be unbeaten, but they’ve hardly been untested. Closer games, rather than lopsided outcomes, have proven to be the rule for Rhule’s team instead of the exception. Even Baylor’s 18-point win over Oklahoma State at Stillwater see-sawed back and forth until the Bears billowed away in the fourth quarter.
If Rhule could hand-pick any identity, it would be that of a fourth-quarter team. The Bears are still very much a work in progress in that regard, though. On the season, they’ve scored 65 points in the fourth quarter, while also giving up 65.
“We are not where we can just roll the balls out there and be up 28-0,” Rhule said. “We are going to have to show grit and fight and wear you down. We are going to keep it close, keep it close, and then in the second half when the other team maybe gets tired, we are a pretty conditioned team, a pretty tough team.”
One of Baylor’s team goals is to pitch a fourth-quarter shutout each game. In the Bears’ 17-14 win over West Virginia last Thursday, they accomplished that task for the first time all year. Again, progress.
Most of the time during Baylor’s games, Charlie Brewer surveys the field with an emotionless expression. The junior quarterback is well-known in the BU locker room for his even-tempered personality – he’s more unruffled than a bottle of spray starch.
That tends to serve him well in the pressure-packed moments of a tight fourth quarter.
“I think we have a quarterback who loves to go play in those games,” Rhule said. “He likes to be out there.”
Or, as Brewer put it, “I think I never get too high, never get too low. I’m never going to let a loud stadium affect how I finish the game. I like to think I’m pretty composed.”
Of course, it’s not up to Brewer alone to go win it in the fourth. Baylor’s defensive and special teams units have saved the Bears’ bacon several times in hotly-contested games this season.
To wit – in the fourth quarter of the Bears’ 23-21 win over Iowa State, James Lockhart shot into the backfield for a sack of Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy, dislodging the ball, which was recovered by BU defensive end James Lynch. Against Texas Tech, Clay Johnston gave the ball back to the Bears after an untimely turnover by promptly intercepting the Red Raiders’ Jett Duffey.
Then last week over the Mountaineers, Bravvion Roy rejected the kick attempt of WVU’s Casey Legg with 3:33 left to play, helping to preserve the Bears’ three-point triumph.
“I say the defense starts to buckle down as the game goes on and we start to learn a little bit more of what they’re doing because what you see in the first and second quarter you see in the third and fourth quarter,” safety JT Woods said. “So we get a little familiar with the offense. And then offensively, they just start to draw up some things and dial up a lot, and they start putting some points on the board.
“What helped us last week, the defense had a fourth-quarter shutout. As long as you keep having fourth-quarter shutouts, then we’re going to be able to keep having good games.”