Overlooked Baylor defense also Big 12’s best

Baylor senior safety Ahmad Dixon takes a deep breath and has the

same thought each time he gets to the sideline after a defensive

stop.

”I’m just like, Wow, this is really us, this is who we are,”

Dixon said.

While often overlooked because of all the outrageous numbers put

up by their high-scoring offense, the fourth-ranked Bears also have

the Big 12’s best defense.

With seven senior starters who have learned third-year defensive

coordinator Phil Bennett’s system and a tenacious approach, Baylor

is allowing only 15.4 points and 306 total yards a game. That is

best in the league and top 10 nationally for a group that gave up

37 points and nearly 500 yards a game while among the nation’s

10-worst defenses the previous two seasons.

”Having knowledge, and that’s something that we have,” Dixon

said, explaining the difference. ”You can go out there and you can

play fast, you can play physical and you can play fearless because

you’re not out there thinking. You’re not worrying about anything.

You’re just playing ball.”

That vastly improved defense is a big reason why the Bears are

8-0 for the first time in school history.

”They don’t get enough praise,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty

said.

The Bears (8-0, 5-0 Big 12), fifth in the BCS standings, play

Texas Tech (7-3, 4-3) in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on Saturday

night. They have a school-record 12-game winning streak.

Baylor passed its most significant test so far with a 41-12

victory last week over then-No. 12 Oklahoma. While the final score

got lopsided, the Sooners had their fewest yards (237) over an

85-game span since 2007 and were held in check as the Bears offense

got off to an uncharacteristically sputtering start. Oklahoma lost

yards on eight plays and gained nothing or only 1 yard on 11 other

snaps.

The Bears allowed more than 500 yards eight times last season,

including 807 to West Virginia in that wild 70-63 loss. The fewest

they gave up was 342, a number higher than their average this

season.

Bennett was Pittsburgh’s interim head coach preparing for a bowl

game at the end of the 2010 season when he got a call from Baylor

coach Art Briles, whose team had just played in its first bowl 16

years.

Briles told Bennett that the Bears were going to be really good

on offense, and that they could be a special team with a comparable

defense. Bennett took the job, given control of the defense and

recruiting the players for it.

”What he’s brought is stability and experience. He’s a tireless

worker that’s very driven to succeed,” said Briles, the mastermind

of an offense that has still thrived with different quarterbacks in

both seasons since Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III went to

the NFL.

During his first spring, Bennett wrote down a list of

deficiencies on defense, and it was a lengthy list for the former

SMU head coach now at his eighth different school as defensive

coordinator. Previous stops included LSU, Texas A&M, TCU and

Kansas State.

”I say this with all honesty, I’ve done this as long as anybody

that’s doing it today and those two years, that year-and-a-half,

getting to where we got … might have been my best coaching job,”

said Bennett, in his 36th consecutive season as a coach. ”We were

able to get crucial stops, the kids bought in.”

Baylor has more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes allowed

(eight). They average nine tackles for loss, second among FBS

teams, and also lead the Big 12 with three sacks a game.

Combine that stout defense with the big-play offense, and the

Bears are winning by an average margin of 45.6 points a game – that

difference is more than any other Big 12 team scores per game. They

lead the league allowing only 174 yards passing per game, and are

third in rushing defense (132 yards per game).

Defensive end Terrance Lloyd, called ”Pops” by his teammates

because of his team-high 38 career starts, admits that Bennett’s

system ”was confusing at first” and is hard, but certainly works

for the Bears.

Eddie Lackey, a linebacker with a knack for big plays, said

players need to be strong-minded to play for Bennett in the Bears’

defense.

”You’ve got to have a long memory in a sense of remembering

what to do, but short memory as in you’re going to get yelled out,

you’re going to get screamed at,” Lackey said. ”You need to clear

that and just forget about it. … He’s only trying to make you

better and he’s going to pat you on the back and ask you how your

family’s doing after practice.”