Baylor’s path to the College Football Playoff took an unexpected turn with a season-ending neck injury to starting quarterback Seth Russell during the team’s last outing, a 45-27 victory over Iowa State.
For the second-ranked Bears (7-0, 4-0 in Big 12), that places the nation’s highest-scoring offense under the direction of freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who played last season at Stephenville High School.
Baylor coach Art Briles said Monday that coaches view Stidham as “a ready quarterback with an old soul,” rather than a freshman preparing to make his first college start, heading into Thursday’s game against Kansas State (3-4, 0-4) in Manhattan, Kan. But members of the Bears’ defense acknowledge their role in keeping Baylor’s playoff hopes afloat will be bigger Thursday (6:30 p.m., FS1) and in subsequent games as the team seeks to persevere without Russell, a fourth-year junior who led the nation in passing efficiency and touchdown passes at the time of his injury.
“Our defense has to step up and take it to the next level. That’s something in-house that we talk about,” said linebacker Taylor Young, who ranks third on the team in tackles (36) and fourth in tackles for losses (six). “Jarrett is a great player. Everybody on the team is around him trying to build him up and boost his confidence. As a defense, we have to do our part. We most definitely have to have that attitude out there.”
Statistically, the Bears rank in the middle of the pack among the nation’s FBS defenses in yards allowed (382.4 per game), scoring (25.1 average) and several other categories. In six major defensive categories tracked by the NCAA, Baylor ranks between No. 51 (rushing defense, 151.3 yards per game) and No. 73 (pass defense, 231.1 yards per game).
That has been good enough to produce seven wins, all by 18 points or more, while working in support of an offense that leads the nation in scoring (61.1 average) and total yards (686.1 per game). But with a freshman quarterback and five of the toughest games on Baylor’s schedule remaining, defenders understand much of the burden-of-proof for this team’s playoff fortunes will shift on to their shoulders.
“As a team, we’re going to step up and make sure we don’t put the game on his back,” defensive back Travon Blanchard said of Stidham. “We understand that he’s not Seth. We want to help him out on defense as much as we can. We’ve prepared for this the whole season. The time is here. We have to perform now.”
This week’s comments mirrored those from August, when Baylor defenders vowed to help carry the load for an offense that was transitioning from the leadership of NFL-bound quarterback Bryce Petty to Russell, a first-year starter. But Russell hit the ground running in September, elevating the Bears’ production levels from standards set while winning or sharing Big 12 titles under Petty in 2013 and 2014.
We’re going to step up and make sure we don’t put the game on his back.
Baylor DB Travon Blanchard on defensive efforts to support new QB Jarrett Stidham, a freshman from Stephenville
A similar offensive spike would be an unreasonable expectation for Stidham, 19, despite his strong efforts in spot duty this season (24-of-28, 311 yards, six TDs, no interceptions). Defenders insist they are willing to play the final five games content in the knowledge that Baylor’s offense may not top the 60-point mark again this season. Or even the 50-point mark.
They plan to make it work by continuing to make game-changing plays, the strength of this Baylor defense. Although the Bears surrender their share of yards, Baylor ranks eighth nationally in tackles for losses (8.3 per game) and 13th nationally in turnovers gained (18). Baylor’s turnover margin is plus-8 through seven games, ranking No. 10 nationally.
The Bears’ defensive focus is about creating turnovers and making drive-ending plays, like tackles for loss when opportunities arise. Linebacker Grant Campbell, the Bears’ leading tackler (55), expects that trend to continue and considers it emotional fuel when outsiders focus on perceived defensive shortcomings.
8.3Tackles for loss each week by the Baylor defense, ranking eighth among FBS schools
“People are going to be attacking (the Baylor offense) like we don’t have Seth any more. The defense has to step up and continue to get better every week,” Campbell said. “This is motivation for us. We’re going to take any kind of criticism and use it as fuel and motivation.”
Briles indicated his defense expects to benefit from the return of All-Big 12 defensive tackle Andrew Billings, who missed the Iowa State game with an ankle ailment. But he knows Thursday will be an emotional game without Russell, a team leader, in the Bears’ lineup.
“You shoot from the heart and from the hip,” Briles said. “We’ll attack each situation as it presents itself. But I feel very confident about our football team right now.”
That includes the guys on defense, who join Stidham in the spotlight as Baylor begins its November push for the playoffs.
No. 2 Baylor at Kansas St.
6:30 p.m. Thursday, FS1