Baylor Bears

Baylor defense seeks more consistency in big-game setting

Across the board, the raw statistics suggest the Baylor defense ranks among the nation’s best and should be an asset to a championship team.

But breakdowns in the season’s biggest games cloud that issue for the 13th-ranked Bears (7-1, 4-1 in Big 12), who face No. 15 Oklahoma (6-2, 3-2) in a Saturday showdown in Norman, Okla., that will be crucial to both teams’ chances to win a Big 12 title.

Baylor, at this juncture, controls its destiny in the Big 12 title race. By winning its four remaining games, starting against the Sooners (11 a.m., FS1) and continuing through a Dec. 6 finale against No. 7 Kansas State (7-1, 5-0), the Bears would claim the bowl berth reserved for the Big 12 champion and would be under consideration for a berth in the four-team bracket for the College Football Playoff.

A loss to Oklahoma, which holds an 11-0 record when playing Baylor in its home stadium, would remove most of those options. That means the Bears will be under the microscope against the Sooners, particularly a defense that has allowed 99 points (49.5 per game) in its only matchups this season against teams in the CFP rankings.

Baylor fell to No. 23 West Virginia 41-27 on Oct. 18. The week before, the Bears surrendered 58 points in a 61-58 triumph over No. 6 TCU.

During last year’s Big 12 championship season, the Bears’ losses were against No. 11 Oklahoma State 49-17 and No. 15 UCF, 52-42. That means Baylor has allowed 50 points per game in four of its last five meetings against Top 25 opponents. That trend must stop against OU, said linebacker Taylor Young.

“Every game is big, but this is a statement game,” Young said. “It’s finally going to put us where we need to be, if we win this game. I feel like people will show us a lot more respect if our defense steps up to the plate. We must show up.”

At times, Baylor defenders have been dominant this season. The Bears allowed no touchdowns against SMU or Northwestern (La.) State. Texas did not score for 58 minutes during its 28-7 loss in Austin.

Those performances help the Bears rank among the nation’s top 17 teams in total defense (322.6 yards per game), rushing defense (99.9), sacks (3.38 per game) and turnover margin (plus-8). Among Big 12 defenses, Baylor has collected the most sacks (27) and allowed the fewest first downs (17.4 per game).

But most of the focus on the Baylor program goes to an offense that leads the Big 12 in scoring (50.4 points per game) and total yards (590.2 per game). That is why defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who joined the staff in 2011, uses the Bears’ offense as a benchmark for his defenders.

“I tell our kids, ‘Defense will win you a championship.’ If you can match what your offense is doing, then great things will happen,” Bennett said. “I’ve changed what I emphasize since I’ve been here. It used to be about total yards. Now, I don’t care about total yards. What I care about is, ‘How many possessions did we get our offense the ball?’

“I worry about explosion plays, red zone defense, three-and-outs and yards per snap. And turnovers are everything. Whether our offense is scoring a bunch or not, we’re going to play more snaps than anybody on defense. So I’ve got to play more kids and, without being stupid, we’ve got to take some chances to get the ball to our offense.”

Some weeks, that adds up to stifling defensive statistics. Others times, when risks do not trigger rewards, the Baylor defense gets burned. Against Oklahoma, the key matchup involves the Bears’ defensive line.

Baylor’s 27 sacks have triggered minus-213 yards in losses for opposing offenses, most of any Big 12 team. Oklahoma has allowed only five sacks, for minus-31 yards, in eight games. Both figures are the fewest among Big 12 teams.

Asked about the need to pressure OU quarterback Trevor Knight, who has rushed for 295 yards this season, Baylor coach Art Briles said: “It’s critical. And it’s a good matchup for us. We certainly feel good about our defensive line. I like the attitude of our guys and I like the skill level of our guys going into the game.”

But these are the same guys who gave up 485 yards to TCU and 456 to West Virginia in consecutive weeks. They will be facing an Oklahoma offense that rolled for a season-high 751 yards in last week’s 59-14 rout of Iowa State, including 510 on the ground.

Young understands why there are doubters of this Baylor defense, based on the recent loss to West Virginia.

“We’re just embracing it and reminding people, ‘This game did happen and we still have to prove people wrong,’” Young said. “It’s fuel to our fire and it all starts with the D-line. The D-line sets the tone and everyone feeds off of that. If they’re getting back there in the first quarter, I feel like that’s going to happen for the whole game.”

After overseeing a championship-level defense last season, Bennett said these Bears are close. But there is plenty left to prove.

“I’m one of those guys, you’ve got to prove it each week,” Bennett said. “I’m not ready to jump on the table and beat my chest. I’m a perfectionist and we’ve got work to do.”

Then and now

A look at how Baylor’s defensive statistics rank this season when compared to the unit that won last year’s Big 12 championship:

Category 2014 2013
Record 7-1 11-2
Scoring defense 21.9 23.5
Total defense 322.6 360.3
Rushing defense 99.9 145.4
Passing defense 222.8 214.9
Sacks 27 (3.38 avg.) 32 (2.46 avg.)
Turnover margin plus-8 plus-13