By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
Head coach Matt Rhule is only the second coach at Baylor in the last 50 years to reach a bowl game after just two years on the job.
Over the course of three seasons at Temple from 2013 to 2015, Coach Rhule’s team improved from a dismal 2-10 record to 10-4. Similarly, coming up on his third year of tenure with the Bears, the head coach has the chance to bring the program to its first 10-win season since 2015.
That’s the head coach’s expectation, too, although he admits it’s easier said than done.
“I want to make another jump from last year. It’s just a much harder jump,” Rhule said. “It’s much harder to go from good to great. That’s because most of us are pretty happy being good. We spend a lot of time saying, ‘Hey, at least we’re not as bad as we once were.’ It takes elite focus, and it takes elite accountability to become a great football team.”
The first step to another winning season? According to Rhule, consistency.
From being blown out one week to securing a win the next, Rhule said his Baylor team has “never been in control of a game.”
“We were reactionary, and great teams are consistent every single time, and great coaches talk about it. That’s what’s hard to do — is to get our guys consistent day-in and day-out, but I think they know that’s where they have to get to,” Rhule said. “Even last year, the games that we won, it came down to the final minutes.We have to get a lead. We have to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional so we can turn it up. It’s a function of all of that.”
Limiting opponents’ momentum includes making a stand on defense, especially preventing big plays.
For example, in the 66-33 loss against Oklahoma last year, the Sooners racked up more than 600 offensive yards, including scoring plays over 30, 50 and even 80 yards.
Creating a dominant defense begins with controlling the line of scrimmage. Associate head and defensive ends coach Joey McGuire is putting his focus on killing plays before they begin — with sacks.
“Anytime you can hit the quarterback, it’s a good thing. We’ve got to create turnovers,” McGuire said. “That’s been a huge emphasis this year. One thing we’re doing really well is intercepting the ball. We’re causing a lot of fumbles right now, and that’s one thing we’ve got to get better at.”
Controlling the line of scrimmage goes both ways, as the Baylor offensive line has struggled and finished with allowing the most sacks in the Big 12 for two consecutive years.
Yet, there are two crucial changes in the offensive line this year: depth and physical growth.
Offensive line coach Shawn Bell emphasized the strategy behind finding the best five.
“As offensive linemen, we don’t just teach this position; we teach a system. Once you understand the system, you can play any one of these positions,” Bell said. “One thing with Coach Rhule is knowing your job. If you’re at left tackle, you have to know what the right guard does. If you’re a center, you’ve got to know what the right tackle does.”
Rhule believes an improved offensive line is the key to the team’s 2019 success.
“When we got here, there were six offensive linemen on the roster, and we showed up. Two guys retired to get us down to four. We played a 279-pound freshman at tackle the last five games, but he is 300 [pounds] now,” Rhule said. “For us to be a team that’s in contention and relevant in November, we’re going to have to play much better than we have on the offensive and defensive lines, and I think we’re ready for that and our guys understand that’s the next step.”
The third-year coach realizes his team has to protect its top assets.
“We have a great quarterback,” Rhule said. “He can’t be running for his life all the time. We have to make sure he’s comfortable if we want to play at a high level.”
The last step to more Baylor football wins this season comes from believing in the vision to become better.
“I expect myself to do the job that I’m hired to do, and that’s to get us to be a bowl team every year and have us be a team in November that’s fighting to play in the championship game,” Rhule said. “We weren’t that last year, and that’s the next step. A lot of things have to happen in order to make that happen, but we’re going to fight like heck to make it happen.”
Baylor’s football season starts when the Bears host Stephen F. Austin at 6 p.m. on Saturday at McLane Stadium.