By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer, Video by Nate Smith | Broadcast Reporter
Head coach Matt Rhule asked his team for 21 more days. Twenty-one days for his football team to commit themselves to their coach, to their team and to the fight in front of them.
The first obstacle in Rhule’s challenge is the matchup that brought ESPN’s College Gameday to Waco for the first time since 2015. The 21 days begins facing No. 10 Oklahoma Saturday at McLane Stadium in a prime-time battle for the top spot in the Big 12.
“We have three chances to play. Maybe we win all three, maybe we won’t. I don’t know that, but we can give each other our best for 21 days,” Rhule said. “This is a chance for us to show the country Baylor, Baylor football and Waco.”
The Bears have the opportunity to snap a four-game losing streak against the Sooners. With a defense that’s tallied up the most sacks to open a season since at least 2000 with 29, and has held nine straight conference opponents to less than 30 points for the first time in the program’s Big 12 history, Baylor has the opportunity to shut down an explosive Oklahoma offense— especially in front of a sold-out crowd.
“[We’re] just showing what we do every week and how hard we practice and getting to show it on the field,” sophomore defensive tackle Rob Saulin said. “On the biggest game of the day, it’ll be really fun. Sometimes you’re on the smaller, you know, ESPN games, but now we’re the game.”
The Big 12 showdown will be a battle of Oklahoma’s quick-paced offense and Baylor’s strong-standing defense.
The Sooners come to town led by Heisman watch senior quarterback Jalen Hurts, who is just one piece of an offensive unit that averages 48.4 points per game with a game average just shy of 250 rushing yards and 338 yards in the air.
In comparison, the Bears have only allowed 171 points overall and 20 touchdowns in their first nine games. Baylor has held its opponents to 337.4 yards per game, which is good enough to place them in second in the Big 12 and 31st in the NCAA in defensive yards per game.
Rhule knows that in order to stop this top 10 team, the Bears’ defense will have to be close to perfect; and that begins with limiting the mobile quarterback.
“They are as good as running after the catch team as there is,” Rhule said. “They are elite in terms of catching balls and making people miss and extending runs. Anytime you can run the quarterback, it’s going to require someone to get off a block because they’re going to have a hat for a hat, and they do it really well.”
Redshirt sophomore running back Kennedy Brooks and junior wide receiver CeeDee Lamb accompany Hurts as offensive threats. Brooks trails Hurts as the leading rusher (954) with 536 yards on the season with an average of a gain of 8.2 yards per carry.
Along with keeping an eye out for Hurts on the ground, the Bears have to watch out for his arm too; as in the air, Lamb carries the Sooners with 44 receptions and has 983 yards under his belt.
“With CeeDee [Lamb], you have to tackle him — he catches a lot of balls in the middle of the field, and it’s run after the catch as well,” Rhule said. “We just have to make sure it’s a 20 -ard gain not an 80-yard gain; and I think that, again, always comes back to tackling.”
Tackling wasn’t a problem for linebacker Terrel Bernard last week in Baylor’s three-overtime 29-23 victory over TCU. The sophomore, who has taken over for the injured senior Clay Johnston, tallied 19 tackles against the Horned Frogs — the most by a Bear since 2011 and the most by any Baylor player under Rhule era.
But the linebacker’s success isn’t a surprise to his teammates.
“He’s been great. He’s been awesome,” Saulin said. “I had no doubt in my mind that he would go in and do all that amazingly. In practice he’s always running around hitting, making plays. I just knew it would translate well.”
Although the Baylor defense has seemed to keep a balance with the Bears’ struggling offense, both sides of the ball are confident in their ability to keep up with Oklahoma.
“It goes back to what Coach Rhule says: ‘Trust in your training,’” redshirt freshman offensive lineman Casey Phillips said. “Whenever, say on Tuesday morning, you aren’t really expecting to wake up and go full speed at seven in the morning. But they’re always changing and giving us different scenarios. So that kind of helps when our backs are against the wall. We just fall back on what we’ve done Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and just build something.”
The Bears host No. 10 Oklahoma at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ABC. ESPN’s College GameDay will air from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on ESPN.