Following season-opening blowouts of SFA and UTSA, Baylor had every reason to feel good about itself heading into the bye week.
While coach Matt Rhule wants a team that exudes confidence, he made sure the Bears understood that they’re still evolving and have just begun creating their identity as a football team.
Rhule expects the work the Bears put into the bye week to pay off as they turn their attention to Rice in their first road game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Rice Stadium in Houston.
Though the Owls are 0-3 following last weekend’s 48-13 loss to No. 12 Texas, Rhule expects a competitive game.
“One of our challenges coming out of the last few years is really two-fold, winning after a bye, which we have not yet done, and then winning on the road,” Rhule said. “Winning on the road is its own entity, and has its own process. It requires maturity, it requires the toughness to go into someone else’s building, and we’re going to work hard at that this week.”
In Rhule’s first two seasons, the Bears suffered their most lopsided losses of the year in road games following bye weeks.
In Rhule’s debut season at Baylor in 2017, Oklahoma State romped to a 59-16 win in Stillwater. It was just as ugly last year in a Thursday night game in Morgantown where the Bears were on the wrong end of a 58-14 blowout against West Virginia.
Rhule believes Baylor’s maturity will be an asset in the first road game of the season following a 56-17 thrashing of SFA and a 63-14 demolition of UTSA at McLane Stadium.
“This year, it (the bye week) being after game two, we just tried to be really smart about what we did,” Rhule said. “We tried to make it very structured. We have a way more mature team than we did, so there really weren’t any points to be proven. There wasn’t anything like, ‘Hey, we need to work on our work ethic.’ Those guys are working.”
The Bears lead the nation in scoring by averaging 59.5 points per game. They’ll face a Rice defense that’s ranked 108th nationally by allowing 34.3 points per game following a 14-7 season-opening loss to Army, a 41-21 loss to Wake Forest, and the 35-point loss to Texas.
Though the Bears are averaging 318 yards on the ground and 8.4 yards per carry, they spent time last week fine tuning their run blocking. Quarterback Gerry Bohanon came off the bench in the second half of both games to rush for 177 yards on just 13 carries for a phenomenal 13.6 yards per rush, but a lot of that yardage was on scrambles.
“We had a lot of yards, so sometimes the offensive line starts thinking ‘Hey, well we’re really blocking guys well,’” Rhule said. “But sometimes, the back reverses field and runs for 50 yards and sometimes Gerry comes in the game and gives us a hundred yards rushing, which maybe we didn’t earn. So we’re trying to make sure we’re way more precise in the run game especially up front.”
Baylor’s passing game has also been tremendous as Charlie Brewer is hitting 70.2 percent for 362 yards and six touchdowns. But the Bears spent time during the bye week working on dropback passing and making sure the quarterbacks and receivers are on the same page.
“We haven’t really had to use the dropback passing game,” Rhule said. “So as a result, it was getting a little rusty and we’re kind of trying to breathe new life into that. I think that our timing really comes down to practice. Getting us to go out there and rip the football and get open, get out of breaks, and catch the football, those things are really, really important.”
Throughout the spring and fall, Baylor has emphasized forcing turnovers to such a degree that defensive line coach Joey McGuire has been assigned as the “turnover coach.” After forcing just two turnovers in the first two games, the Bears want more as the season progresses.
“We’re still not creating a lot of turnovers and Rice is not a team that’s going to turn the ball over,” Rhule said. “They’re not going to get penalties, they’re not going to give you the game, they don’t beat themselves. So we’re working to make sure that we are dominating contact and trying to knock the ball out.”
The Baylor coaches gained a great deal from watching Texas play Rice last weekend since the Longhorns and Bears run similar offenses and defenses.
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger enjoyed a near-perfect game as he hit 23 of 27 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns while the Longhorns added 171 yards rushing.
Rice quarterback Tom Stewart had a solid day as he hit 12 of 23 for 179 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, but the Owls had difficulty moving the ball on the ground with 87 yards on 31 carries.
“I think it was really good for us to get a picture of some of the things that they did versus a team in Texas who at least structurally is built the same way we are,” Rhule said. “I love playing against teams that I respect, and I respect Rice and who they are and with Coach (Mike) Bloomgren. Just kind of watching how they play, it will be a battle. So we’re preparing for that right now.”
BEAR FACTS – The Baylor-Iowa State kickoff has been set for 2:30 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Big 12 opener at McLane Stadium. The game will be televised on either ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.