Iowa State poses conference road test for No. 13 Baylor
Baylor is looking to start 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big 12 Conference for the fourth straight season when the 13th-ranked Bears travel to Iowa State on Saturday afternoon.
At first glance, it would seem Baylor should have nothing to worry about. The Bears opened as 17-point favorites and are playing a 1-3 Cyclones squad that lost at home to an FCS school, Northern Iowa (25-20), and was blown out by both Iowa (42-3) and TCU (41-20) before finally breaking through with a 44-10 home win over lowly San Jose State last week.
But this is the first Big 12 road contest for the Bears, who have lost two of the last three times they have visited Jack Trice Stadium.
"It's always tough going to Iowa State," Baylor quarterback Seth Russell told the Waco Tribune. "They have great fans and a great turnout every year. They have a grass field and we don't play on a grass field a whole lot, so it will be a little different."
Baylor lost on its first two trips to Ames, Iowa, under former head coach Art Briles before finally breaking through for a 49-28 win in 2014. A sellout crowd of over 50,000 is expected. The Bears have played just one nonconference road game, defeating Rice 38-10, before a turnout of just 27,047 at Rice Stadium, and the atmosphere figures to be much louder on Saturday.
The Bears remain the only unbeaten team in the Big 12, and they showed they could keep that distinction despite a huge step up in competition against Oklahoma State last Saturday night.
Baylor defeated the Cowboys 35-24 and did so with the same swagger that made the Bears contenders in the Big 12 the last three seasons. Baylor gave up yards, but held Oklahoma State out of the end zone at crucial moments.
On offense, Baylor showed versatility in its passing game. Russell threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Platt in the third quarter. Then in the fourth, Russell deftly led a 99-yard scoring drive during which he passed for 104 yards.
"I was happy that our players got challenged and bowed their necks a little bit and did what they needed to do, especially down the stretch to get a win," Baylor interim coach Jim Grobe said.
On the surface, the Bears seem to be handling this strange year with remarkable dexterity.
Grobe replaced Art Briles after Briles was fired in May for his part in Baylor's Title IX failings the past few years. As interim, Grobe has done his job of smiling after wins and offering up the usual head coach quotes.
But he doesn't seem to have much control over the team. It appears the Baylor assistant coaches, all holdovers from Briles's staff, are running the show.
When Baylor faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 24 late in the third quarter versus Oklahoma State, Grobe called for a punt. He was either not heard or ignored depending on how one deciphers a quote from Grobe's Monday press conference.
Initially, Grobe said in his postgame presser that his headset was inadvertently muted. But he said on Monday that wasn't the case.
"To be honest with you, when I said I didn't have the switch turned on, I wasn't sure," Grobe said on Monday. "I asked (offensive coordinator Kendal Briles), 'Did you hear me say punt the football?' He said, 'No coach. You said punt the football.' We've just got to do a better job of communicating."
Baylor failed to gain a first down on the risky fourth-down play. But the Bears' defense covered for the miscue by eventually stopping Oklahoma State on a fourth-and-two inside the Baylor 3.
Russell, inconsistent in the first three games, had by far his best game of the season in the win over the Cowboys, passing for 387 yards and four TDs en route to Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors. He benefited from the return of wide receiver Ishmael Zamora, who had been suspended for the first three games of the season for beating a dog.
The Bears are likely to rest wide receiver KD Cannon, who has been slowed by a groin injury. Cannon leads the Big 12 with 27 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns but had just three catches for 18 yards in the first half against Oklahoma State and wasn't at full speed.
Iowa State has been going with a two-quarterback system this season and Jacob Park and Joel Lanning combined to complete 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against San Jose State.
If they are effective, Cyclones running back Mike Warren might have some room to run. He is averaging 64 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush.