By Jeffrey Swindoll
One of the nation’s most explosive offenses faced trials and tribulations in 2014, but successfully defended its Big 12 title and lived up to the “Nation’s Top Offense” title given to it by popular opinion.
Long has Baylor football been a pass-heavy, offensively oriented team. With arguably the best offense in 2013 and the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year leading their team, the Bears had much in front of them in 2014. A lot was going for them already with the sheer amount of skill and experience on their roster, but the depth of the Bears’ offense was challenged from game one and on.
“It’s apples and oranges,” head coach Art Briles said. “It’s night and day between what we were then and what we are now with depth on our football team. It took us about four years to build up to Big 12 quality depth and now I certainly feel like through recruiting and everything that’s gone on with us over the last two or three years that we certainly have people that we can put on the field and perform at the level it takes for us to win on Saturdays.”
With senior receivers Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller nursing injuries, Baylor’s non-conference matchups felt like showcases for its young talents at wide receiver. Freshmen receivers KD Cannon and Davion Hall wasted no time in showing the Baylor Nation that the Bears’ tradition of exceptional wide receivers is here to stay for the next three years.
Having an offense so predicated on the deep-ball and spreading the field, the Bears played to their established identity of pass-happy offense. Baylor led the nation in points per game and finished second in the Big 12 (5th nationally) in total passing yards per game (346.2). Additionally, the Bears finished second in Big 12 in pass offense with 346.2 yards per game. Baylor finished second in pass efficiency (157.0) and second in turnover margin (1.00).
“The thing I like about our football team, the thing you always try to preach is consistency. It’s hard to stay consistent over a four-month period of time with a lot of distractions and I think our guys have done that for the most part. I’m pleased with their attitude, their mentality, their focus and their vision.”
Senior quarterback Bryce Petty threw for 3305 yards. Petty had his fair share struggles in 2014, but he was able to do what only one other quarterback (Jameis Winston) was able to accomplish — winning their respective conference two years in-a-row). Petty had to find different ways to win this season. Teams knew what to expect from him after his breakout 2013 season, but he still managed to be lethal with his long ball accuracy and responsible with his decisions.
Petty was sidelined due to a back injury that saw him sit out three quarters against the Mustangs and the entire game against Northwestern State. Petty also left the Texas Tech game in the third quarter with mild concussion symptoms. Perhaps he and the Baylor offense as a whole could have totalled even higher numbers had he been healthy all season. The Bears also finished second in the conference in rushing offense.
Unlike when other college team’s lose their starting quarterback, Petty’s absence was no reason for panic. Sophomore quarterback Seth Russell showed plenty of promise in the few moments he had in games as the starting quarterback. Russell earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors after his game against Northwestern State and nearly broke Baylor passing records in that game as well. Baylor’s near future at the quarterback position is quite comfortable as well.
“I think that’s what separates the good teams from the great teams,” Petty said. “Things happen in games and you’ve got to be able to step up. You can’t have the mentality that you’re a backup and you’re not going to play. So we don’t have backups or second strings here. Everybody is a starter. It just depends on when you get your call. I think everyone has done a great job up to this point of stepping in when their number is called. We have to continue to do that because you have to have depth to make championship runs.”
At just about every position, Baylor’s offense dealt with injuries. No injury on Baylor’s starting offense was the loss of senior tackle Troy Baker. Baker and junior guard Desmine Hilliard suffered season-ending injuries in the same game, halfway through the Bears’ season. An entirely new right side to Baylor’s offense was introduced in the final half of the regular season, and they answered their mission bell, junior offensive tackle Spencer Drango said. Their efforts secured the second best rushing offense in the conference (235.2 yards per game).
“It feels great with people coming in there and being able to rotate in without having to worry about who is in there, knowing that we are still going to be able to run the ball,” Drango said. “It has been very nice to have because depth is always great and the guys have really stepped up.”
No other team was in the top two of both passing and rushing offense like Baylor this season. This fact demonstrates the balance of Baylor’s offense, and to have done so with players coming in and out of the lineup is an even greater demonstration of the team’s depth.