By Shehan Jeyarajah
Flashback to Sept. 29, 2012: Baylor had just put up 581 passing yards, 700 yards of total offense and 63 points against No. 9 West Virginia… and lost.
In that game, the Baylor defense allowed West Virginia to pass for an astounding 656 yards and finish with 807 yards of total offense.
Last season, the Baylor defense was historically bad. The Bears were 123rd out of 124 in total defense and gave up 502.2 yards per game.
Baylor was 113th in scoring defense and 123rd in passing defense. Baylor had also given up the ball eleven more times than it had forced turnovers through six games.
What a difference a year makes. Through six games this season, Baylor ranks 11th in total defense. The Bears allow opponents to gain 317.3 yards per game of total offense. Baylor also ranks seventh in scoring defense and allows 16.2 points per game to lead the Big 12.
“Those guys on defense have been good,” head coach Art Briles said. “As a unit, those guys really do good. Coach [Phil] Bennett has done a great job since being here.”
Last week against Iowa State, Baylor had arguably the best defensive game in program history. The Bears held the Cyclones to 174 total yards of offense.
The defense had pitched a shutout until Iowa State scored with only 47 seconds left in the game.
“The thing that’s very impressive to me was that Iowa State was the first night we haven’t taken an opening drive and scored,” Briles said. “Their first three possessions were 1-2-3 punt, 1-2 fumble, and 1-2-3 punt, 17-0 Baylor. That’s the critical part. Those guys have been good.”
Baylor is top 20 in the nation at stopping opponents on third down conversions. The opposing team gets a first down only 32 percent of the time against Baylor. After a stop, teams will still go for it on fourth down 24.3 percent of the time. Baylor’s offense plays a big role in the way that Baylor plays defense.
When opponents think of giving the ball back to Baylor’s offense, they have to take into account that it is more likely than not that Baylor will score. Therefore, coaches decide to gamble on fourth down to try not to fall behind by multiple scores by giving the ball back to the deadly Baylor offense.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, typically an extremely conservative coach, took multiple uncharacteristic chances against Baylor that did not pay off.
In the first quarter, the Wildcats opted to roll the dice on fourth down, instead of kicking a field goal. The defense got a stop. Then in the third quarter, Snyder went for the two-point conversion after touchdowns, failing both times. Throw in a missed field goal in the fourth quarter, and that is an eight-point swing. Baylor won by 10.
“When a team tries to go for it on fourth down, it gets us on our toes,” senior safety Ahmad Dixon said. “Instead of giving those guys short yardage on fourth, we try to get them out to fourth-and-five, fourth-and-six and we’ve been getting stops.”
After six games last season, Baylor had turned the ball over 11 more times than it forced turnovers. This year, the Bears have recovered five fumbles and caught nine interceptions for a plus-6 turnover margin. Baylor ranks 23 in interceptions and 47 in fumbles forced. They also have four defensive touchdowns.
“We’re executing better and tackling much better than last year,” senior nickelback Sam Holl said. “We have to make plays when we have opportunities to make plays, and we’ve really been doing that this year. We’ve been causing turnovers and scoring a lot, which is a great change.”
Senior linebacker Eddie Lackey is confident in the improvement in the defense under third year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
“I think the biggest difference between last year and this year is just the maturity of our defense,” Lackey said. “Everybody knows where to be and when to be there. I think that’s most important, taking little steps and little edges and being able to execute.”
If Baylor can maintain its defensive success, this team may move even higher than its current No. 8 BCS ranking. Baylor looks to continue its success in a critical road matchup against Kansas at 6 p.m. Saturday in Lawrence, Kan. The game will be televised on ESPNU.