By Parmida Schahhosseini
Baylor’s hard-nosed, physical defense played up to its potential. After begin the laughingstock of the nation last season, this year’s unit rose up and backed up the hype with smashmouth, aggressive play to propel the team to its first Big 12 Title.
After giving up an average of 37.2 points per game last season, the Bears reduced that number significantly — allowing only 21.2 points per game this season. After a dominant showing against Kansas State on Nov. 17, 2012, this defense has turned its play around.
“This program has grown so much,” senior cornerback K.J. Morton said. “Even just from the players believing, the faith that we have in our abilities now. Everybody has confidence. Everybody knows we can go out there and beat whoever it is, if it’s Texas, if it’s Oklahoma. We don’t look at names anymore. We know what we’re capable of.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett took a lot of heat last season, with many fans screaming for his termination, but head coach Art Briles believed in him and rightfully so.
Bennett had success prior to Baylor, coordinating top 20 defenses at Kansas State and Pittsburg, in addition to Oklahoma as a secondary coach.
In 1997, Bennett also helped TCU earn its highest defensive rankings in five years. Bennett had the pedigree as a successful defensive coordinator, but it was up to the players to mature and buy into his system.
This season, Bennett’s unit was determined to be better. Seniors stepped up as linebacker Eddie Lackey led the way with 13 tackles for loss, 97 tackles, and two interceptions, one of which was a critical pick-6 against TCU.
Morton reeled in his second and third interceptions of the season against Texas, one of which came in the fourth quarter to seal the deal for the Big 12 Champions.
“It’s crazy right now and it hasn’t really set in,” senior defensive end Chris McAllister said. “I think tomorrow when I wake up and see ‘Baylor — 2013 Big 12 Champs’ I’m going to believe it, but right now it’s crazy. It just shows what you can do with a vision, a dream and hard work.”
Late in the season as injuries piled up and Baylor faced tougher opponents, it became more critical for the defense to step up. Since the game against Oklahoma on Nov. 7, Baylor’s offense has had slow starts to every game. Against Texas, it was no different as Baylor was only able to muster three points in the first half.
“We felt like we were not performing offensively like we needed to and we felt like we were moving the ball and just kind of self-destructed,” Briles said. “We knew that the defense was playing well enough that we were going to be in the game, it was just going to be a low-scoring game.”
Baylor limited third down conversions to 33 percent and was 7-for-28 on fourth down, which is the second best in the nation. The defense forced 92 punts this season, which is the most in Baylor history.
The main ingredient allowing this ball-hawking, aggressive defense to be successful was turnovers.
The defense forced two or more turnovers in 14 of the last 19 games and is 16-3 in that span. The defense intercepted the ball 17 times, while giving up 19 passing touchdowns.
Baylor scored five touchdowns on its interceptions and one touchdown on a fumble recovery after senior linebacker Bryce Hager returned one 91 yards against Buffalo. Baylor is 24-2 when forcing two or more turnovers.
After a targeting call during the third quarter against TCU, Dixon was forced to miss the remainder of the game and the first half of the Texas game.
Despite being a marquee player in the secondary, the other guys were able to step up to hold Texas to three points.
“Those guys were doing a great job and I almost got flattered by watching them instead of getting out there with them,” Dixon said. “These young guys stepped up and everybody stepped up.”
Sophomore defensive end Shawn Oakman gave the Bears an added boost with 12 tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and blocked a first quarter field goal attempt against Texas this season.
Sophomore defensive end Jamal Palmer played in all 12 games coming off the bench, contributing with 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks and four forced fumbles.
Freshman defensive linemen Byron Bonds and Andrew Billings have made their mark on the team. Bonds started in seven games, contributing 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble while Billings started in one, adding 19 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.
With younger guys getting more reps, Briles recruiting better talent, and players maturing in Bennett’s system, this unit can get better.