Bears seek improvement heading into Big 12
Baylor’s best case scenario during nonconference play was to show improvement each week as it stair-stepped in competition, beginning with an FCS opponent before jumping to a Conference USA member and finally to a Power 5 conference school.
All went according to plan with a season-opening 55-27 win over Abilene Christian followed by a 37-20 win over UTSA. But the Bears stumbled into a wall in a 40-27 loss to Duke with too many turnovers, too little running room, too many dropped passes, and no sacks for the Baylor defense.
Perhaps most disturbing was the lack of inspiration the Bears played with in the first half Saturday at McLane Stadium when the Blue Devils stormed to a 23-0 lead. Baylor fought back in the second half with four touchdowns, but the hole was too deep to dig out.
“It is frustrating to think that you kind of gave away a game when you come out in the first half and play like we’re not supposed to play,” said Baylor defensive lineman James Lynch. “You come out in the second half and show what we can actually do, come back from 23-0 to make it a game. It’s frustrating to know that we’re better than what we showed. We’ve got to find a way to play a full game, and we’ve got to find a way to do that before we play Kansas.”
The Bears open Big 12 play against the perennial cellar dwelling Jayhawks at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium. Baylor’s only win last season came at Kansas’ expense as then-freshman quarterback Charlie Brewer led the Bears to a 38-9 blowout last November in Lawrence.
But this is evidently a new and improved Kansas squad that’s coming off a 55-14 demolition of Rutgers on Saturday in Lawrence. It was the Jayhawks’ second straight win after a humbling 26-23 loss to Nicholls State in the opener.
The Bears know they must get their own house in order to have a shot to win any Big 12 game. Baylor coach Matt Rhule thought the Bears were highly motivated to play at home against Duke, which made their lackluster first half all the more perplexing.
“When I walked out there, I was like ‘Boy, this team is as ready to go as anything,’” Rhule said. “They were focused (Friday night). They were focused (Saturday). But it happens. So I mean I certainly didn’t sense anything.”
For the Bears to break through in the Big 12, major improvement has to start up front on the offensive and defensive lines.
For the second straight week, the Bears had difficulty running the ball. Their best chance of picking up rushing yardage came on scrambles and designed plays by quarterbacks Brewer and Jalan McClendon, who combined for 83 yards on 18 carries.
The rest of Baylor’s players rushed for 47 yards on 14 carries, which put more pressure on Brewer and McClendon to carry the offense with the passing game.
“The only way to correct it is to work through it,” Rhule said. “But that being said, that’s an issue for us right now. There is no reason to make excuses. Those guys will get better. I think you’ll see a much more improved offensive line next week.”
Though Brewer and McClendon combined for 270 yards passing, they could have produced much more yardage if not for numerous dropped passes by Baylor’s receivers. The Bears played without junior receiver Denzel Mims, who was nursing a hamstring injury.
“It was a hot day and guys are having to play a lot,” Rhule said. “Really tough, mentally tough receivers fight to go get the football. So I just think we’re at a stage of development at that position where guys are learning to become that. A lot of those were hard balls and 50-50 balls, and you catch one or two of those and we’re off and running.”
Duke came up with two sacks and forced a first-quarter fumble by Baylor running back John Lovett that the Blue Devils converted into a touchdown. They sealed the win with a fourth-quarter interception return of 53 yards by Leonard Johnson.
Baylor’s defense didn’t produce a sack or a turnover, and had trouble stopping the Blue Devils on the ground as they rushed for 225 yards. Making his first start at quarterback after Daniel Jones broke his clavicle last week, junior Quentin Harris threw for 174 yards and three touchdowns while tying Deon Jackson for the team rushing lead with 83 yards on 14 carries.
Lynch believes Baylor’s defensive line can still become a bigger force as the season progresses.
“We didn’t have any sacks, so that’s an indicator that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Lynch said. “If we can’t get a sack, that’s going to hurt our defense a lot. We have a lot of potential, we’ve got a lot of playmakers on our D-line, from our ones to our twos to even our threes. We’ve just got to come out and use our technique that we’re taught every day, and do what we’re told. If we do what we should and do what we’re supposed to, we’ll be a great D-line.”
Baylor played much better in the second half as freshman Christian Morgan blocked a punt that JaMycal Hasty scooped up for a 33-yard touchdown. Brewer ran for two touchdowns while McClendon hit a leaping Tyquan Thornton for a 25-yard touchdown.
But the Bears understand that they can’t fall into big holes and expect to climb out of them as the schedule gets tougher throughout Big 12 play.
“I’m hoping it was an anomaly in terms of the first half,” Rhule said. “I thought you saw improvement in the second half. It’s probably all these guys going through this process and learning how to win.”