By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor, Video by Nate Smith | Broadcast Reporter
No. 12 Baylor football is walking into a burning house coming off a bye week and a big win against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. After a weekend of upsets, in which all favored teams in the Big 12 were defeated, the undefeated Bears sit alone on top of the conference and are one of eight teams in the nation without a loss so far.
But according to head coach Matt Rhule, the rankings and hype are just outside noise. For Rhule and his team, it’s all about playing good football.
“To me, it’s always just trying to get them to come back to the football, the football, the football. Because when you watched the games on Saturday – you guys asked about the games – what you realize is guys won or lost, not based upon their ranking, not based upon anything else, not what uniforms they wore or who’s in the crowd,” Rhule said. “They won or lost based upon one thing and one thing only, whoever played better. So, if you have four turnovers, you’re probably going to lose. It’s just always trying to get our guys’ minds to go back to the football. Go back to the football.”
Baylor welcomes a young West Virginia team for a Halloween game at McLane Stadium Thursday night. The 3-4 Mountaineers are also coming off a bye week after a loss to Oklahoma Oct. 19. Despite dropping in caliber from previous years, West Virginia still has plenty of threats for the Bears to look out for.
Baylor faces another strong quarterback in Austin Kendall, who ranks 30th in the nation and fourth in the Big 12 in completions per game with 20.1. The redshirt junior has a 63.51 passing percentage and has thrown for 11 touchdowns but also has seven interceptions.
But bigger than Kendall, the Mountaineers pose a dangerous challenge in the defensive line and in special teams. West Virginia has the third-best special teams unit in the Big 12. WVU has 18 sacks this year, good for third in the conference, with the Bears leading in that category. They also have 45 tackles for loss on the year, which puts them at fifth in the conference.
Senior offensive lineman Sam Tecklenberg said that the Mountaineers defense shifts in their scheme and the Bears continue studying ways to spot that shift a lot easier in order to counter it.
“Their defense is a little different. You don’t see a lot of people doing what they’re doing,” Tecklenberg said. “They switch back and forward between four-down and three-down, kind of keeping the same personnel. So, kind of [identifying] what they’re in, every play, is probably going to be really big this week. So, we’re getting in the film room and seeing if we can pick up on any tips or anything, but that’s probably the biggest thing.”
Baylor’s defense is still standing strong even with the loss of senior linebacker Clay Johnston. In the Bears’ last three wins, they have totaled 13 sacks and 29 tackles for loss. Baylor’s 25 sacks on the year is the most to open the season since 2000.
Junior defensive tackle James Lynch leads Baylor’s defense, as well as the Big 12, with 8.5 sacks and is second in conference in tackles for loss with 11.5. With 17 career sacks, Lynch is only 0.5 sacks away from tyingthe Bears’ career record, and with five regular season games left, the Round Rock native is closing in on passing former defensive end Shawn Oakman on the leader board.
Despite being undefeated and putting up some impressive defensive numbers, Rhule said the Bears need to improve on both sides of the ball.
“Our offense has been a little more big play oriented — they’re scoring quicker. The defense is having to be out there longer [and] hasn’t been as good on third down. Offense hasn’t been as good on third down. So, there’s some things that we’d like to correct,” Rhule said. “I think everyone on defense has to play better and tackle better; I think everyone on offense has to block better.”
In Rhule’s eyes, and in the eyes of the team, Baylor has to be really prepared to play the Mountaineers as the Bears have not won against West Virginia since 2015. Senior linebacker Jordan Williams said Baylor will continue with its 1-0 mentality going forward but the Bears would like to finally break that streak.
“We want to win. We’ve lost these past two years, and I’m tired of losing, honestly,” Williams said.
As the only nationally televised college football game scheduled for Thursday, all eyes will be on Baylor and West Virginia when the two Big 12 teams face off at 7 p.m. at McLane Stadium on Halloween.