By Steve Lansdale
It wasn’t that long ago when a team would look at its schedule, see Baylor as its next opponent and thought “oh good … it’s only Baylor.”
Those days are gone.
The Bears gave every reason last year for people to doubt them, going 1-11, with a 1-8 record in games against Big 12 opponents. Included in the skid mark that was the 2017 Baylor season were a series of lowlights that included losses to Liberty, Texas-San Antonio and Duke. At the end of the season, head coach Matt Rhule talked positively about his team, insisting that the Bears were close to turning a corner. Outsiders who merely read the team’s box scores wondered if the first-year coach was watching the same team they were.
But he was right. Baylor is a much-improved team in 2018, jumping out to a 4-2 start. Teams facing the Bears actually have to practice for them now, rather than merely uttering cursory compliments while practicing for next week’s game.
So what can the Longhorns do to ensure a positive result when the teams meet Saturday in Austin?
Make quarterback Charlie Brewer get out of the pocket
Brewer is quickly becoming one of the conference’s better passers. His completion numbers (132 of 206, for 1,558 yards and a 64.1 completion percentage) are good, if not spectacular. But he makes plays with an adequate-at-best group of receivers, and does an outstanding job taking care of the ball, with nine touchdown passes against just two interceptions through the team’s first six games.
The drawback with this plan is that while Brewer averages just 2.2 yards per carry, he is not without athletic ability and can run. In this case, it’s a matter of reducing the threat, because eliminating him from the game plan altogether is not going to happen. Forcing him out of the pocket, especially to his left, and making him throw on the run will increase the challenges he faces against the Longhorns’ defense.
Get the Bears into third-and-long
Every defensive coordinator will underscore the need to get opposing offenses into third-down situations, and the logic is obvious: if the opponent doesn’t have to convert third downs, chances are it is putting up yards — and therefore points — at an alarmingly rapid rate, thereby nullifying the need for third downs.
The Bears are a solid offense, scoring 35.8 points per game. When it comes to sustaining drives, Baylor is succeeding at an impressive 48 percent clip. Brewer is talented enough that as long as he is at the helm, the Bears have a chance in most third-down situations, but it goes without saying that forcing him to convert on third-and-10 (or longer) means much better situations for the UT defense. Offer the Baylor offense a bunch of third-and-1 or third-and-2 situations, and the Brewer-led attack has too many options, and will continue to pile up points.
Keep Baylor out of the red zone
This is not just basic math — of course defenses want to keep opposing offenses outside the 20-yard line, rather than letting them creep into range for easier (read: “shorter”) scoring plays. That part is obvious.
What is less clear immediately is that Baylor is quietly very efficient on third downs. Inside the opposing 20-yard line, the Baylor offense is as reliable as they come, scoring on 96 percent of its drives into the red zone, and more importantly, scoring touchdowns on 67 percent. Brewer is a smart quarterback with a strong arm, so it’s not like the Bears are without chances from beyond the 20-yard line, but if at all possible, the UT defense needs to avoid serving up the easy layups.
Make Baylor kick
It’s another staple of Football 101 Coaching philosophy: a team has to score touchdowns, not field goals, to win most games. That adage holds especially true for the Bears, who have a relatively inconsistent kicker in Connor Martin.
The junior Baylor kicker became something of a team hero last week when he nailed a 29-yard field goal in the final seconds last week to lift his team to a 37-34 victory over Kansas State … but that was only after he had missed three other field goals earlier in the game.
For the season, Martin has converted 12 of 17 field goals — 70.6 percent — and has hit just 21 of 24 extra points, which should be good every time. Ideally, the Longhorns will shorten the middle of the field and force the Bears not only to kick, but to do so from long range: Martin has connected on just two of five field goals from 40-49 yards, and has drilled one of two from 50 or more yards.
Through six games, the Bears have lost just three fumbles, which is impressive.
What’s not so impressive is that they have put the ball on the ground 13 times in those games. Yes, the Bears have had some good fortune and hopped on most of their fumbles so far, but those numbers show fumbles can be forced.
The turnover battle is crucial in most games, and it appears the Texas defense has figured out how to rip the ball free. If the Longhorns can start converting those fumbles into touchdowns, that could go a long way to toward extending the UT winning streak.