How do you stop Baylor’s offense?
The question itself may be a paradox, like asking the best way to hold rain within a cloud.
How do you stop Baylor’s offense?
The Bears have averaged 61.7 points a game through nine games this season, almost 10 more points a game than any team in college football. If the Bears average 41.5 points in their final four games of 2013, they will break Oklahoma’s total scoring record of 716 points. Oklahoma, by the way, had 14 games to score those points. Baylor will only get 13 games, thanks to the Big 12 abolishing a championship game after the 2010 season.
Saturday, No. 4 Baylor travels to No. 10 Oklahoma State for its most difficult game of the season, and one that could decide the conference title.
So what can Oklahoma State do to slow the Bears’ furious pace?
The Bears have established themselves as the Big 12’s best team and a national title contender, prompting anger, confusion and frustration from defensive coaches, but leaving behind barrels of a freshly made mixture of respect and awe.
West Virginia safeties coach Tony Gibson coached at Arizona in 2012, where he faced Oregon’s offense. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said he told the staff Baylor’s offense was the “absolute fastest, most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. Ever.”
Baylor scored 73 points against West Virginia, one of four games this season it topped 70 points and one of seven games in which the Bears scored at least 59 points.
“Honestly, I think everybody’s kind of scratching their head right now trying to figure out how to defend them,” Patterson said.
It all starts with the wide receivers. It sticks out immediately on film and tells any defensive coach this challenge will not be like the others.
Baylor receivers will often line up less than a foot from the white boundary of the sideline. When coach Art Briles began building Baylor’s rise to Big 12 contention, it was Kendall Wright. Then it was Terrance Williams. Now it’s Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood, after Tevin Reese’s dislocated wrist against Oklahoma sidelined him for the regular season.
“The way they spread you out is the hardest thing,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said.
The Bears scored 71 points against the Cyclones, and threw for 423 yards and two touchdowns, but only needed 39 pass attempts to do it. The Bears ran the ball 52 times for 291 yards and five touchdowns. Against West Virginia, the Bears ran for a 468 yards and eight touchdowns on 62 attempts, all season highs.
“Everybody’s got a perception that they’re throwing the ball 50-55 times a game, but they’re not. You have to have people out there to cover. Then they run the ball,” Burnham said. “That was the thing we struggled with was getting people in the box to run the ball. That’s what they do best.”
The receivers’ wide splits require cornerbacks to match them, and safeties must respect Goodley and Norwood’s speed, which means they’re further upfield and closer to the sidelines. Suddenly, only seven bodies are available to cover the run, but covering receivers in the slot can trim that number to six or even five. Suddenly, the offensive is winning the numbers game in the most important place in the field: The line of scrimmage.
“They take a lot of shots downfield, because of the QBs accuracy and the speed of the WRs, “Burnham said. “It’s hard to get people in the box to stop the run. If you have success in that, they’ll throw the heck out of the ball.”
Burnham and Iowa State wanted to focus on stopping the run.
Patterson and West Virginia’s focus was preventing deep passes.
Neither team kept Baylor under 70 points.
“You’ve got to pick if you want to die a fast death or a slow death,” Patterson said.
So what about those two games in which Baylor didn’t score at least 59 points? The Bears’ offense hasn’t been fireworks for all 540 minutes this season. Kansas State held Baylor to just 35 points and held a 25-21 lead into the fourth quarter after shutting Baylor out in the third quarter back on Oct. 12.
“Part of it was the fact that offensively we ran the ball well,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “It was just a matter of trying to play sound. We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. More than anything else, (it was just) being where we’re supposed to be.”
Kansas State took Iowa State’s approach in selling out to stop the run. Baylor’s receivers struggled with drops more than they had all season, but Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty threw touchdown passes of 93, 72 and 54 yards in the eventual 35-25 win.
Oklahoma led Baylor 5-3 midway through the second quarter. The only time Baylor had touched an end zone was when the Sooners drilled Bryce Petty in the backfield for a safety. Having talented corners like Aaron Colvin helped Oklahoma slow down the Bears, but it didn’t last.
“Oklahoma just locked up on them and played man. Well, that works for a little while, but then as the game wore on, they made some adjustments,” Patterson said. “Now, they start running the football and once they started getting the ball to the perimeter, they stated having some success.”
The Bears took the lead on a five-yard Petty touchdown run and a Blake Bell interception helped Baylor score two touchdowns in 47 seconds late in the first half, cueing a 41-12 rout.
“You can’t win a game against Baylor playing 90 to 100 snaps,” Oklahoma DC Mike Stoops told reporters before playing the Bears. Through a spokesman, he declined an interview request for this story. “You hope that your offense can control the football and that you can control the tempo of the game.”
Kansas State elected not to blitz.
Oklahoma blitzed often.
The Sooners pressured Petty, forcing him to try and complete passes with defenders in his face. It didn’t take long for the Bears to adjust and relieve the pressure, and Baylor racked up three more second-half touchdowns, complete with a handful of deep passes downfield.
“They spread you so they know where everything’s coming,” Stoops said. “You try to disguise and tie things up, but they’re very good at understanding where you’re coming from, just because of their splits.”
Petty has injected himself into the Heisman conversation after accounting for 34 touchdowns (10 rushing) and throwing just one interception. He’s showcased his NFL size and arm in stretching the field to Goodley, Reese and Norwood while also proving himself as a rushing threat defenses are forced to respect. He’s completed 23 passes longer than 40 yards in just nine games this season. No other quarterback in college football has more than 14.
“They basically say, ‘Hey, look: Are you going to cover us or are you going to try and stop the run?’ If you try to cover, good luck trying to stop those running backs with a physical offensive line,” Patterson said.
It all comes back to those wide receivers on the sideline.
“If you can man up on their two outside guys and load the box, you got a chance,” Patterson said. “But you better have a couple of NFL corners, and I’m not lying. That’s a tall order.”
The Cowboys may just be able to fill it. Justin Gilbert has been one of the nation’s best corners this season. He leads the Big 12 with six interceptions and may be the first corner drafted next April. Sophomore Kevin Peterson has one pick and four pass breakups this season in a solid first season as a starter, even if he lacks Gilbert’s speed, experience and pedigree. Tyler Patmon and Ashton Lampkin will need their best game of the season as well. Tackling in open space is an overlooked must in defending the Bears.
“They run up big numbers because the quarterback’s throwing the ball accurate. They’re catching the ball and then they’re running for an additional 20 or 30 yards each time,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “You do that 5-6 times and now you’ve got an additional 150-200 yards.”
Like Kansas State, Oklahoma State’s offense gives it the ability to run the ball. Desmond Roland and Clint Chelf re-energized the Pokes’running game which has rushed for an average of more than 222 yards a game since handing the starting duties over to Roland.
OSU’s front seven, led by defensive tackle Calvin Barnett and linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis are third in the Big 12 in defensive yards per carry, at just 3.47 yards a touch. Only two teams have given up fewer yards a carry and just one has given up fewer rushing touchdowns.
Baylor’s a member of both.
But back to the offense.
Left tackle Spencer Drango will miss Saturday’s game (and likely much more time) after undergoing back surgery and running backs Lache Seastunk and Glasco Martin will likely still be limited after suffering injuries against Oklahoma. Shock Linwood has rushed for more than 180 yards in each of the past two games, showcasing what Briles called “Big 12 quality depth” after beating the Sooners.
“Shock’s not necessarily a home-run hitter, but Shock’ll just pound your flesh for six or seven yards a clip,” Patterson said. “Seastrunk’s a home-run hitter. All of a sudden you’re strung from Shanghai to Shang-low and they’re handing the ball off to him.”
The scheme hasn’t changed much for the Bears, who started 0-4 in Big 12 play last season and now is enjoying a 13-game winning streak.
“The biggest deal is they’re so much better on defense. They’re a much better defense and running the ball than they were a year ago,” Patterson said. “They’re more physical on the offensive line and they’re deep at running back.”
So how do you stop these Bears? Kansas State and Oklahoma have shown flashes, and on a perfect day, it’s not impossible.
The truth, though, is one that won’t bring comfort to defensive coaches from Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas, the Bears’ three remaining opponents.
“It’s a nightmare trying to defend them right now, and they’re not even at full strength right now with the two running backs and Reese out. I’m telling you, they’re still blowing and going,” Patterson said. “I don’t have any answers on how to stop ’em. I don’t think anyone does, to be honest. No one’s going to stop them. They might slow ’em down, but you’re not going to stop them.”