It was only a year ago when fans called for the firing of Baylor’s defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, as he faced constant scrutiny. The defense left a lot to be desired after giving up more than 519 yards per game through the first nine games of 2012.
Nov. 17, 2012, everything changed.
Tired of constant criticism and embarrassment, the worst defense in college football put on a show against No. 1 Kansas State. After the unit’s performance against UCLA in the Holiday Bowl, the Bears have been exuding confidence, not afraid of anything.
While Bennett was the scapegoat during the tough times, his players and head coach Art Briles stood by him. When people began to doubt, Briles and the team didn’t.
“We’ve never lost faith,” Briles said. “That’s something you never do. When you lose faith, you lose all.”
It’s different this year as Bennett’s defense put forth a dominating performance and was 47 seconds away from a shutout on Saturday against Iowa State.
Despite all the attention, all he can do is keep the defense hungry. As the defense continues to mature and buy into the system, Bennett continues to expect more.
“He’s a tough critic,” senior linebacker Eddie Lackey said. “He always just wants to make us better. It’s a big expectation, but he wants perfection. There’s always going to be something we can fix.”
Lackey was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week. Lackey finished with eight tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss, leading the defense to allow 174 yards, the lowest team total since 2001. Lackey is getting plenty of help from his teammates, with the chemistry of the team increasing.
After the offense started with a rare three-and-out and a special teams mishap, Iowa State began its first drive at the Baylor 44-yard line. The defense got a three-and-out, and gave the ball back to the offense. As the game went on and the offense did its job, the defense continued to perform. It made the plays when it needed to and forced critical turnovers, limiting Iowa State’s possessions. Senior nickelback Sam Holl and senior cornerback Joe Williams both came up with an interception while underclassmen such as freshman linebacker Byron Bonds and sophomore defensive end Jamal Palmer made their mark on the team with a forced fumble apiece.
“That’s a point of emphasis for us to get a lot of turnovers,” senior defensive end Chris McAllister said. “If you take the ball away, your chances of winning increase. We can do things when we put our mind to it.”
Bennett’s aggressive defense has led to those turnovers, which has translated into wins. Baylor has forced two or more turnovers in 10 of its last 13 games and has recorded 27 sacks in its last seven games. Players are maturing and understanding the system better, which leads to better execution.
People who know Bennett aren’t surprised by this production. Bennett has 35 years of experience while coaching defenses in conferences such as the Big 12, SEC, Big Ten and Big East.
Prior to Baylor, he was the coordinator at Pittsburgh in which his defense was ranked eighth in the country in total defense. In 2009, his unit led the nation in sacks with 3.62 per game. During his three-year tenure at Kansas State, his defense was consistently ranked in the top five. In 1994, as the defensive coordinator for LSU, his defense led in every defensive category in the SEC and was eighth in the nation in total defense.
One key attribute Bennett has is the respect of his players. While it’s his scheme that allows the players to succeed, he lets the players handle the success.
“He’s one of those guys that you would really run through a wall for,” Bonds said. “If you are struggling off the field, on the field, either way, he’s a phone call away. He’s there for his players, so why not be there for him?”
The defense has found its identity. It has taken longer than Bennett would have liked, but the benefits are worth the patience. The chemistry and trust among the players has helped this team immensely, and Bennett’s influence can’t be overlooked.
“He’s a good coach and we love playing for him,” Lackey said.