By: Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
After two losses in a row, Baylor football can still turn its season around with a win over Big 12-leading Oklahoma on Saturday.
Following last Saturday’s loss to Texas Christian University, Baylor looks to find its focus again as the team prepares for an 11 a.m. showdown on the road against an explosive Oklahoma team that jumped to No. 11 in the second batch of College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night.
“We all understand that one of the problems for young people is focus, and it can also be a problem for coaches,” said acting head coach Jim Grobe. “I don’t know how much of our focus was taken away, but we know that these next four games are going to be really hard, and the only way we can succeed is if we are really focused.”
Oklahoma, which sits alone atop the Big 12 standings with a perfect 6-0 record in conference play, enters the game having won 12 consecutive conference games and has the offensive firepower to strike in many different ways.
Baylor struggled to contain their running last week against TCU as the Horned Frogs piled up 431 yards on the ground, primarily by junior running back Kyle Hicks, who scored five touchdowns. Oklahoma provides a similar challenge in running backs redshirt sophomore Joe Mixon and junior Samaje Perine. Mixon has compiled 813 yards on the ground and has scored five touchdowns. He is the quicker of the two backs, and Baylor will need to contain him and be able to tackle well in space. Perine, who ran for a game-high 166 yards and two touchdowns last season against Baylor, provides the power running attack for the Sooners. He has run 475 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2016.
“The hardest part for the defense is playing the team that has the great running backs. I like what they do up front. They’re very physical,” Grobe said. “The skilled guys on the side, and the quarterback is very accurate and can get them the football…I’ve never played an offense that is as explosive as these guys.”
The accurate quarterback that Grobe referred to is redshirt junior Baker Mayfield. Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2015 and, despite getting off to a slow start this season in losses to Houston and Ohio State, is having another highly productive season. He has thrown for 2,912 yards and 31 touchdowns this season, good for an average of 323 per contest. He has also used his legs and scrambling ability to not just buy his receivers more time, but also run for first touchdowns.
Mayfield threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns against Baylor in Oklahoma’s win over the Bears in 2015.
Mayfield has also developed a lethal chemistry with redshirt senior wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Westbrook was held without a touchdown in Oklahoma’s three non-conference games but has 12 since Big 12 play started, including three against TCU and Kansas. He has 64 receptions on the year, 40 more than the second leading receiver, and has compiled 1,166 yards.
“He’s really special. Speed is what really impresses when you watch. We’ve faced fast guys every week, but this guy seems to have an extra gear,” Grobe said. “You’ve got a quarterback and receiver that really mesh well together. I think that helps with the supporting cast. You’d love to be able to focus on one guy, but you can’t because they’ve got so many weapons.”
Although Oklahoma provides a stiff challenge for the Baylor defense, the same can be said about the Sooners’ defense. The Sooners are allowing an average of 431 yards of offense per game, and Baylor averages 541 yards per game.
A big step for Baylor after last week will be re-establishing the rushing attack after it was held to a season-low 133 yards. With the suspension of senior running back Shock Linwood due to “attitude” issues, the duties will be squarely on the legs of sophomore running back Terence Williams and redshirt freshman running back JaMychal Hasty.
Even without Linwood, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops said he expects Baylor to try to keep the Sooners off balance defensively and establish the ground attack.
“That’s their bread and butter is to be able to run the football, and they’ve led the league in rushing, probably the last four or five years,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly press conference.
Sophomore wide receiver Ishmael Zamora continues to assert himself as a viable offensive threat on the outside for senior quarterback Seth Russell. He was targeted 13 times last week and had seven receptions for 121 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown that started the game. Russell said he looks for Zamora to continue this upward trend as a playmaker.
“He’s a big body and has great hands, runs really good routes, works hard in practice, and he’s proven that he wants the ball,” Russell said. “He’s hungry. Those first three games he sat out, he’s really taken that to heart, and he’s taken every day and really progressed.”
According to Russell, it ultimately comes down to the little things and execution. If the Bears can execute at a high level, the confidence is there and the results will follow.
“We’re going in this week, trying to bring the morale back, work on the small things and execute at a high level,” Russell said. “I’m excited for this week. We have to get back to what we do.”
Kickoff between Baylor and Oklahoma is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla. The game will be aired on ABC and the WatchESPN app.