Saturday morning’s Big 12 matchup in Waco will be the meeting of two head coaches who might be more familiar with each other than they are to their own teams. Tom Herman and Matt Rhule met in the AAC title game two years ago as the head coaches of different teams, but they now face off as conference foes separated by a 90 minute bus ride.
Both the Baylor Bears and the Texas Longhorns will go into this game needing a win. Texas has lost two in a row and dropped to below .500 on the season. Injuries have plagued the Longhorns, but a win on Saturday could bring some positive vibes back into the program.
Baylor continues to improve and is looking for that elusive first win of the season. Saturday, which is one of their last true home games, represents a great opportunity for them to pull the upset.
DATE & TIME: SAT, OCT 28 at 11:00 AM CT
WHERE: McLane Stadium (Waco, TX)
FORECAST: Mid-50s, Sunny
BETTING LINE: UT -8.0
TEXAS (3-4, 2-2)
Much like the Bears, the Texas Longhorns have had their share of close contests thus far this season, with all three of their losses against top ranked teams having been decided by an average of 3.67 points per game.
The Longhorn defense has been largely responsible for keeping those matchups close. Last week, Texas held the highly explosive Oklahoma State Cowboys to ten points in regulation.
The Texas defense ranks in the top two in the conference in Third Down Conversions, Fourth Down Conversion, Opponent First Downs, Sacks By and Interceptions. Those statistics speak to the basis of what defensive coordinator Todd Orlando seeks to do: stop the run and be selectively aggressive in long down-and-distance situations.
Although the defense has mostly played well, offensively Texas has struggled.
The Longhorns are averaging a meager 22.8 points per game in conference play. Such low scoring is partly the result of inconsistent play along the offensive line, a unit that has had some injuries and struggled last week to protect quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
Ehlinger, who has been in concussion protocol this week, most likely will not play on Saturday. Replacing the true freshman will be sophomore Shane Buechele, who is recovering from an ankle injury suffered earlier this season.
Buechele started every 2016 game for the Longhorns but has struggled to find a rhythm within the new offensive system.
More of a pocket passer than a dual threat quarterback, Buechele has some playmakers to whom he can throw, like 6’6” wideout Collin Johnson. The question for the offense is whether he can stay upright long enough to get the ball out.
Last week against Oklahoma State, the Texas offensive line was mauled by three and four man fronts. That led to hurried pass plays and a game ending interception.
It also led to an unimpressive 1.3 yards per rush by a group of running backs that has yet to have any standouts so far this season.
Opposing defenses have been able to play coverage against the Longhorns because of the lack of any run game and Texas will have to see if they can’t find ways to generate yards to avoid becoming one-dimensional.
BAYLOR (0-7, 0-4)
The Bears were eliminated from bowl contention last week against West Virginia, but there is still plenty of pride and fight left in this team. Every week, it seems, Matt Rhule’s squad continues to get better.
Baylor showed a bit of that last week, when they rallied from 38-13 to almost tie the game in the final minutes. The 38-36 loss is indicative of the close games the Bears have played throughout this season: of Baylor’s seven losses, four of those have been by eight points or less.
Last week Matt Rhule found out that Baylor has two quarterbacks who are more than capable of getting the job done. Sophomore Zach Smith has started five games and amassed over 1,400 yards, while the Bears scored 23 unanswered points late last week with true freshman Charlie Brewer.
Smith left last week’s game with flu-like symptoms. He will be the likely starter against Texas, but Brewer is a gifted athlete who ran for almost 50 yards in a quarter against the Mountaineers. Look for both guys to see playing time this week in Waco.
Either quarterback will look to take advantage of the talented receivers on the outside, many of whom have made big catches throughout the 2017 season.
Leading that group is Denzel Mims, who has a dangerous combination of good hands and blazing fast speed. His ability to make big plays has led to his averaging 97.9 yards per game receiving in 2017.
In players like Trestan Ebner and John Lovett, the Bears also have running backs with speed to burn. Their in-game statistics might not stand out, but both have shown the ability to take the ball to the house on any given carry.
Baylor can also hope the late play of their pass defense carries over from last week, when the Bears forced three West Virginia punts, aiding the 23-0 late run.
If this Saturday turns out to be another close game, the Bears can rely on Connor Martin, who is making 87.5 percent of his kicks this season.
KEYS FOR UT
Stay Out Of Third And Long – Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have their hands full this week trying to get this team to find an offensive identity. They should use the absence of Sam Ehlinger, who the offense began to lean on a bit too much, to generate decent gains on first and second down. Getting a rhythm going offensively should be a goal Texas seeks to achieve this week and it will be helped immensely by early success.
Forget The Record – The most important thing for the Texas defense to realize is that even though they’re playing a team that hasn’t won a game yet, the Bears are highly volatile. Baylor has athleticism across the board and they’ve been getting closer every week to pulling off a big upset. The Baylor offense will bring its best game into McLane Stadium on Saturday morning. If the Longhorns have even momentary lapses into undisciplined play, it could put them in a hole their offense can’t overcome.
Get A Big Play On Special Teams Or Defense– With Texas’s struggles on the offensive side of the ball, getting help – especially in the form of an actual score on a punt return or turnover – in the points department or with great field position would take pressure off the offense.
KEYS FOR BU
Try To Hit Big Passing Plays – If there’s one potential mismatch between the Texas defense and the Baylor offense, it would be Baylor’s ability to turn busted coverages into big pass plays. If the Bears can find ways to generate yards on the ground – with, say, Brewer playing read option football – then they might be able to catch a Longhorn defensive back looking in the backfield and hit a big play over the top. The Texas secondary has been torched because of big pas plays this season.
Avoid Big Turnovers – The Longhorns have proven throughout the season that they are more than comfortable playing a field position game and waiting for the other team to give them the ball in plus territory. If the Bears can avoid making big mistakes that give a leg up to the struggling Longhorn offense, they should be able to put themselves in position for a big win.
Keep Everything In Front Of You – Like other teams in the Big 12, the Longhorns have struggled against teams that decide to play a light box and welcome Texas to run the ball. Until the Longhorns prove they can run consistently or protect the quarterback with a five-on-three advantage, there wouldn’t seem to be a reason for Baylor to try to fix what already seems to be working for other teams.
Baylor certainly has a lot of things going for them in this game on Saturday. It’s hard to know whether the early start time benefits the Bears, but the game certainly looks like it comes at a good time for Baylor to pick up their first win. The Bears are gaining momentum by playing close games with good teams, have found not one but two quarterbacks and have the advantage of playing loose in a game where they probably have less to lose than Texas.
For the Longhorns, the news of Ehlinger’s injury really changes the calculus on this game. Their last conference win with Buechele came on the road in a game where the offense needed all the help it could get. Will the offensive coaching staff find innovative ways to move the ball and make life easier on Todd Orlando’s defense?
I am not right now confident enough to say yes to the question. I was ready to take Baylor to cover when the line was over nine points and I will take them to cover now. An upset would not be shocking here, but I will say Texas wins a close game where both teams manage to just get into the 30s.