Playing in a conference loaded with great quarterbacks, there aren’t many nuances of the passing game that Baylor’s defense hasn’t seen.
Powerful arms, quick feet and instinctive decision making are all part of the makeup of Big 12 quarterbacks. The last two Heisman Trophy winners – Oklahoma quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray – are products of the league’s dynamic spread offensive philosophies.
Stepping outside of the Big 12 to play Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl, the Bears will face a gifted pro-style quarterback in Kyle Shurmur on Dec. 27 at NRG Stadium in Houston.
His father, Pat Shurmur, is the head coach of the NFL’s New York Giants, so Kyle has been blessed with some good quarterback mentors along the way.
“He’s a coach’s kid and he plays that way,” said Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow. “He doesn’t have great mobility and he knows that. They don’t run him for those types of plays. But his arm strength is plenty good enough. In the SEC, those (defensive) guys close pretty fast on the football, so he’s made some nice throws.”
The 6-4, 225-pound senior’s 2018 statistics would stack up with a lot of Big 12 quarterbacks as he’s completed 64 percent for 2,844 yards and 23 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
Led by Kalija Lipscomb with 81 catches for 886 yards and nine touchdowns, Shurmur has an array of receivers in his arsenal. Jared Pinkney has made 45 catches for 698 yards and seven touchdowns while C.J. Bolar has made 31 catches for 397 yards and two scores.
But it’s Shurmur’s experience and decision making that key Vanderbilt’s attack. During his four seasons at Vanderbilt, Shurmur has passed for 8,579 yards and 63 touchdowns.
“The guy controls the football game,” Snow said. “He takes care of the football, puts them in the right stuff. He’s really poised and just operates the offense real well.”
While Shurmur’s passing is a major part of the Commodores’ offense, they also feature a solid running game led by Ke’Shawn Vaughn with 1,001 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns while averaging an impressive seven yards per carry.
Taking some of the pressure off Vaughn, Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield have combined for 738 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
“Andy Ludwig is their offensive coordinator, and I go back with Andy a long time,” Snow said. “He runs the West Coast offense and they shift and motion a lot, and they give you some condensed formations like the (Los Angeles) Rams do, which create problems in the pass and run game.”
Vanderbilt’s running backs are also an integral part of the passing game as Blasingame has made 22 catches for 235 yards and Vaughn has made 13 catches for 170 yards and two scores.
“They drop back when they have to and they’ve got a great screen game with their running backs,” Snow said. “That’s part of the West Coast offense is the screen game. They can run the football, play action, boot. So they have a variety of things.”
Vanderbilt’s offense is averaging 397.8 yards and 27.7 points per game, and the Commodores rarely beat themselves as they committed just 13 turnovers during their 6-6 regular season.
The Bears are tied for 126th out of 129 NCAA teams in turnovers forced, so they hope to become more opportunistic in the Texas Bowl.
In their bowl clinching 35-24 win over Texas Tech in the Nov. 24 season finale, the Bears sealed the win with late interceptions by cornerback Raleigh Texada and linebacker Blake Lynch. But the Bears missed several other turnover opportunities earlier in the game.
Baylor has forced just nine turnovers during its 6-6 season.
“We should have had three or four other picks earlier in the (Texas Tech) game,” Snow said. “We dropped the ball. We just haven’t had a lot of turnovers this year. But if you watch opponents, they haven’t thrown the ball down the field against us much either. A lot of the big passing plays have been short plays.”
Delivering pressure against Shurmur will be crucial for the Bears, who are tied for seventh in the Big 12 with 24 sacks.
Sophomore all-Big 12 defensive lineman James Lynch has been Baylor’s biggest force up front. Lynch leads the Bears with 5½ sacks and nine tackles for loss.
“He’s getting better and better,” Snow said. “But you know he’s been nicked a lot this year, so I think that’s hurt some of his progress. But I think he’s healthy now and I’m expecting a good game from him in the bowl game.”