The November stretch that will determine Baylor’s defensive improvement in season-defining games is upon us.
For the Bears (8-0, 5-0 in Big 12), who stand No. 6 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, the legacy of a 2015 defense that was supposed to help carry its share of the load in this team’s playoff push will be defined Saturday against No. 12 Oklahoma (8-1, 5-1) and in every subsequent game on the regular-season schedule.
Baylor defenders began the season with nine returning starters from an 11-2 team and plans to help an offense in transition survive some early growing pains, if necessary, while adjusting to a new quarterback. Eight games and two starting quarterbacks later, the Bears’ offense has shown no evidence of growing pains while leading the nation in scoring (57.4 average) and total offense (665.6 yards per game) under the direction of the injured Seth Russell or his replacement, freshman Jarrett Stidham.
This could be a statement game for our defense. We plan to pitch a shutout.
Baylor nickel back Travon Blanchard
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A veteran defense, as a result, usually has operated with huge leads in hand while taking down eight opponents with a combined record of 24-47 (.338 winning percentage). Contrast that to the 29-7 mark compiled by Baylor’s four remaining opponents (.805).
Although the Bears rank among the national leaders in turnover margin (plus-11) and third-down stops (36.8 conversion rate for opponents), the defense has struggled in some key areas against lackluster competition.
Heading the list: Baylor ranks next-to-last among Big 12 teams in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score on 86.4 percent of their trips inside the Bears’ 20-yard line (19-of-22). Those drives have resulted in 15 touchdowns and the Bears have forced zero red-zone turnovers.
There’s some more left in the tank.
Art Briles on DE Shawn Oakman, who leads the Bears in tackles for losses (11)
As the quality of opposing offenses escalate in November, Baylor should expect to defend more drives in close proximity to the Bears’ goal line. Preventing those possessions from reaching the end zone will be essential. It likely will require some red-zone turnovers as well as more crunch-time sacks from a pass rush that has struggled to corral opposing quarterbacks. Baylor ranks eighth among Big 12 teams in sacks (16), ahead of only West Virginia (14) and Texas Tech (13).
Oklahoma, by contrast, has collected 34 sacks. The Sooners are allowing opponents to score on only 75 percent of their red-zone trips (21-of-28), the stingiest percentage among Big 12 defenses. Baylor, clearly, has room to improve and its defenders acknowledge the task at hand.
“We’ve known for a while that November was going to be the toughest part of our season,” nickel back Travon Blanchard said. “We want to improve on our mistakes that we’ve been making and make them earn everything they get. We can’t allow them any explosive passes or runs.
“This could be a statement game for our defense. We plan to pitch a shutout. We plan to keep them out of the end zone.”
A shutout seems unlikely, considering Baylor has not blanked a league opponent during the Big 12 era (1996-present). But the Bears have put the shackles on Oklahoma the past two years, winning 48-14 last season and 41-12 in 2013.
The difference Saturday is this Sooners’ offense, which leans on running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, offers a bigger potential headache for a Baylor defense that has allowed 200-yard rushing performances to three teams with losing records: SMU (203 yards, 1-8 record), Iowa State (232 yards, 3-6 record) and Kansas State (258 yards, 3-5 record). Defensive tackle Andrew Billings, the team’s top run stopper, missed the ISU game with an ankle injury and played sparingly last week against K-State.
Coach Art Briles said Billings is “actually better than we thought he would be” after last week’s abbreviated return against K-State. If Billings remains limited or cannot go, the Bears’ depth already is compromised by an injury to backup tackle Byron Bonds, who may not play against OU.
That means Baylor will need more from defensive end Shawn Oakman, who has had a hit-and-miss senior season after being selected in July as the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year. Oakman leads the Bears in tackles for losses (11) but 5.5 of those came in non-conference games. Only two of his four sacks were recorded against Big 12 opponents.
Briles made it clear he expects Oakman to step up his game Saturday.
16 Sacks this season by the Baylor defense, less than half of Oklahoma’s total (34)
“There’s some more left in the tank,” Briles said. “His play on the field, as we get into this game, I think those factors will show out even more.”
The biggest issue, said linebacker Grant Campbell, will be building off a game-ending stop in the final minute of last week’s 31-24 victory over Kansas State, Baylor’s lone win by less than 18 points this season.
“A close game like that, your team has to come together and grind it out. It helps get us prepared for future circumstances where we’ll be put in those same situations,” Campbell said. “Any team in the Big 12 can score two touchdowns whenever they want, so you can just never get comfortable, especially as a guy on defense. You always have to keep that gas pedal down the whole game until it ends.”
That will be especially true for the final four games on Baylor’s schedule, starting Saturday against Oklahoma.
No. 6 Baylor 42, No. 12 Oklahoma 38 (7 p.m. Saturday, WFAA/Ch. 8): Bears have handled OU on both sides of the ball the past two seasons in high-stakes games. A three-peat will be challenging but doable.
No. 15 TCU 56, Kansas 14 (11 a.m. Saturday, FS1): Horned Frogs rebound from last week’s loss with a resounding victory over the winless Jayhawks.
No. 8 Oklahoma State 34, Iowa State 28 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): An unbeaten Cowboys team whiffed in a similar November setting in 2011. This group finds a way to seal the deal, but barely.
West Virginia 31, Texas 23 (11 a.m. Saturday, ESPNU): Longhorns have struggled in opponents’ home stadiums all year and Mountaineers benefit from that trend.
Texas Tech 41, Kansas State 35 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, FS1): Red Raiders finally capture their elusive sixth victory to become bowl-eligible.
Last week: 4-1