Defensive play keeps Baylor undefeated, in playoff race
The start of the season has not been kind to the Big 12 conference, as we’ve seen teams like Oklahoma, Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State all lose games early on and essentially eliminate themselves from CFB Playoff contention. But there’s still two unbeaten teams left in the conference — and one in particular that seems to still have a good chance to earn a spot in the playoffs.
The Baylor Bears have jumped out to a 5-0 start, and despite some issues here and there, they look like the best team in the Big 12. Let’s take a look at how they got here and what they need to do to keep it going.
Defense in the Big 12? Surely not!
This is no joke. It’s almost shocking to discuss defense in the Big 12 as a reason for success but yet here we are. The Bears defense has been carrying the load for this team while the offense works to get back to the level of years past, and they are the biggest reason this team is unbeaten.
Looking at the stats on the surface, the 946 rushing yards allowed by Baylor in their five games seems like a lot. But the thing that Baylor has been doing best is limiting the big plays. They’ve seen 222 rushing attempts against them, and have allowed just nine of those runs to go for more than 15 yards. A big reason for that is the strong play of Baylor’s outside defenders. The easiest way to prevent big plays is to not let runners get to the edge, and Baylor has done that with players like Travon Blanchard and Patrick Levels. Both players are listed as nickelbacks on the Baylor defense, but they play all over the field. They’ve been the ultimate weapon for Baylor — guys who are big enough to make stops on the edge of the defense, but quick enough to drop into coverage as well. Blanchard ranks third among all secondary players in the country with an 8.4 run stop percentage and Levels isn’t far behind at 5.3 percent. The play below by Blanchard highlights his skill. Lined up in the slot, he diagnoses the play almost immediately, takes a great angle to cut off the back’s path to the edge, beats his block effortlessly and crushes the back behind the line.
That specific play is a lateral on a swing pass, but it’s plays like this that make it so hard to get outside on the Bears. They have so much speed combined with strength on the edge that teams are essentially forced to try to slowly work their way through the middle of the field. That leads to teams having to pass the football, which plays right into their biggest defensive strength.
Few teams in the country have been as good at limiting the passing game damage as Baylor has been. Their 5.2 yards per attempt ranks as the fourth-best in the country, and they average just 166.2 passing yards against per game. The aforementioned Levels is playing at an incredible level, having been targeted just nine times in 119 coverage snaps, and allowed just four yards on four catches. No. 1 corner Verkedric Vaughns has allowed just 9-of-22 for 112 yards, and a very impressive two yards after the catch. They’ve got solid coverage guys all over the field, and they can shut down teams through the air like they did against Oklahoma State.
But perhaps the most impressive trait of this defense is how they lock it down in the fourth quarter. The biggest thing people will talk about is how this Baylor team has yet to allow a single fourth-quarter point. That’s huge, but it’s because of this stingy pass defense that they are able to boast that. Through the first three quarters of games against the Bears, teams are 64-for-119 (53.8 percent) for 742 (6.23 YPA) yards and three touchdowns to three interceptions. But in the fourth quarter, those numbers drop to a ridiculous 11-for-40 (27.5 percent) for 89 yards (2.23 YPA) and no touchdowns to one interception. This is even more impressive consider that Baylor hasn’t been running away with games. Oklahoma State two weeks ago was trying to keep themselves in the game, and last week Iowa State was trying to close it out late. Both teams failed because of the incredible fourth-quarter play by the Bears. This plays directly into their biggest offensive strength and should continue to help them going forward.
Pound the football and then pound it some more and after that, pound it again
When one thinks of Baylor, often the thought that comes to mind is their crazy wide-receiver splits that take up the entire field. Their quick-hit or throw-it-deep passing game that takes advantage of the man coverage teams are forced to play because of the splits. But as they reminded everyone last week against Iowa State, Baylor’s offense is a rushing offense. The 470 rushing yards gained on 60 carries was extreme, but it’s what they do best. When Baylor wants to, they can run the football effectively and frequently, and there’s not much that teams can do about it. While they started a little slow, this offensive line has found themselves as of late, and have become one of the best run blocking units in the country. Both tackles Mo Porter and Patrick Lawrence have run block grades that rank in the top 25 among all NCAA tackles (81.0 and 77.3 respectively). All three interior players are grading above average in the run game, as are tight ends Jordan Feuerbacher (76.9) and Sam Tecklenburg (73.9) who are used as extra run blockers more than two-thirds of the time they are on the field.
Of course, a team’s line can only carry its rushing attack so far. Luckily, Baylor has four very talented rushing threats in RBs Shock Linwood (448 yards on 66 carries, 19 missed tackles forced), Terrance Williams (409 on 70, 16 missed tackles), JaMycal Hasty (270 on 40, 9 missed tackles) and QB Seth Russell (245 on 42, 12 missed tackles). It doesn’t matter who is in the backfield, Baylor knows that it can run the ball with anyone. Only Louisville and Army have rushed for more yards as a team this year. While Linwood started the year slowly, he showed last week that not only is he one of the best running backs in the Big 12, he’s arguably one of the best in the entire country. Runs like this seems like commonplace when Linwood is playing at the best of his abilities.
When Baylor’s run game is on, it opens up their passing game. When teams have to pay extra attention to stopping the run, it leaves receivers like K.D. Cannon and Ishmael Zamora in potential single coverage situations. Both of those players are talented enough to win single coverage against almost any corner, so that’s a matchup that Baylor will gladly take. The beauty of the Baylor offense when it’s running at full steam is that whatever a defense is trying to stop, Baylor can attack the opposite without changing anything. It’s no secret that the passing offense hasn’t been quite as strong as year’s past, but that will only improve as long as the run game continues to dominate.
So can they really make the College Football Playoff?
While it’s unfortunate that so many Big 12 teams have suffered tough non-conference losses, this is still the Big 12 and it’s still full of good teams. If Baylor can run the table and finish the season unbeaten, there should be a very good chance that they are selected as one of the four playoff teams. But running the table against the Big 12 is easier said than done.
Of their remaining seven Big 12 games, the Bears will have plenty of tests. The hardest by far will be travelling to Norman to play Oklahoma on November 12th. Hosting TCU on November 5th and visiting West Virginia on December 3rd should also be tough games for Baylor. Even their other games against lesser Big 12 teams are no guarantees, as we’ve seen in the past. But if the Bears can keep everything together then they still have a good shot at running the table.
Baylor’s strong run game and incredible fourth-quarter defense go hand in hand when it comes to leading to success. Defending the run is exhausting, and no matter how well they play early on, teams almost always tire out in the fourth quarter against Baylor’s high-powered attack. That makes it much easier for Baylor to run the ball effectively to either hold a lead, or get big chunks of yardage without taking much time off the clock (nothing Baylor’s offense does is slow). So after a multi-play, physical drive of trying to stop the run, the opposing defense comes off the field only to see Baylor’s defense shut down their offense and force a quick three-and-out. Now that tired defense has to come back on the field and do it again. We saw it last week with Iowa State. Baylor started the fourth quarter with an eight-play touchdown drive, which Iowa State responded by going three-and-out. Then a ten play touchdown drive for Baylor and another three play and punt drive for Iowa State. The final drive of the game was Baylor running the ball at will against an exhausted defense for 18 plays before capping it off with the game winning field goal.
Baylor will play better defenses than Iowa State’s this year. Oklahoma and Kansas State have been doing fantastic jobs stopping the run this year. West Virginia’s defense has looked good, as has TCU’s. Their offense is good enough to run against all these teams even still, but they’ll need to put forth a defensive effort to match it. Last week Baylor’s defense had a tough time for the first two and a half quarters before they figured it out. They might not be able to afford that against teams like Oklahoma. But if they can keep everything going like they have so far, this is a team that will be hard for anyone to stop. They might just find themselves in playoff discussion late into the season.