By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
For a team going into its first Big 12 Championship game, the seventh-ranked Bears are strangely calm.
Heading to Arlington for an 11 a.m. rematch against No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday, Baylor head coach Matt Rhule said his team’s mindset has not changed — the Bears are still just trying to go 1-0 this week.
“I told our players, ‘Everyone’s going to say, ‘What are you going to do differently?’” the 2019 Big 12 Coach of the Year said. “We just played them three weeks ago. You can’t reinvent the wheel. We can’t come out here and hit our head against the wall. We’re going to play. So I just think our guys are confident.”
Last time the Bears faced the Sooners, they jumped to a quick start with a 28-3 lead in the first half, but OU pulled out the largest comeback in the history of its program to end Baylor’s 9-0 undefeated run with a 34-31 score.
But despite the loss, the Bears learned they could play a complete game, they just have to keep playing their brand of football.
“We got ahead in the game and I think we were kind of surprised that we jumped out to that kind of lead,” senior long snapper/linebacker Ross Matiscik said. “We have to get back to our roots and get back to the kind of football we know how to play.”
Even though the loss was tough for the team, Rhule said it gave the Bears confidence. Baylor got right back to work and completed two dominant wins over Texas and Kansas to finish the regular season at 11-1 — a juxtaposition to Rhule’s first year as head coach when the Bears finished 1-11, marking the quickest turnaround of a Power Five program in two years.
“I think this is a really big accomplishment — us going home for Christmas in December to now playing in a Big 12 game then possibly going on to playing more,” senior linebacker Jordan Williams said. “I feel like that’s just a testament of our hard work.”
Williams and Matiscik have been part of Baylor’s elite defense this season, which leads the Big 12 in scoring defense, defensive efficiency, sacks and interceptions.
The Bears’ defense can now also boast the 2019 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in junior defensive tackle James Lynch.
Baylor’s all-time sacks leader, who also received Defensive Lineman of the Year and a unanimous All-Big 12 first team selection, leads the conference with 10.5 sacks on the year and is third in tackles for loss with 15.5. Lynch is also one of five finalists for the prestigious Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award.
Senior wide receiver Denzel Mims and senior defensive tackle Bravvion Roy also received first-team selections while six other Bears were named to the All-Big 12 second team, including senior linebacker Clay Johnston. Johnston’s season ended in early October due to an ACL injury he sustained in the homecoming win over Texas Tech, but the veteran continues to impact his fellow teammates.
“You have to know who Clay is,” Matiscik said. “He’s a goofy, kind of funny guy. Having him around lightens the mood a lot. He’s a great football player who knows the game inside and out. Having him help you on and off the field is important.”
While they’ve kept their heads screwed on throughout the excitement of the week, the Bears know where their flaws were exposed in their last matchup with the Sooners.
Rhule, as well as Matiscik and Williams, acknowledged that Baylor has to do better converting on third down and on stopping Oklahoma’s big plays as well as Jalen Hurts’ run game. The Sooners will also have star wide receiver CeeDee Lamb as an additional threat.
On the offensive side, if Baylor can make one more play than its opponent, the Bears might just walk off the field with a championship trophy.
“I think we’ve improved,” Rhule said. “I think our guys are understanding that we’re a really physical team, but there’s also detail that has to go with that. It’s precise aggression.
“In the second half of that OU game, we weren’t running great angles. And people talk about them coming back on us, they talk about it like it’s a defensive thing.
“ Hey, we needed one first down, we needed two first downs, and the game’s different. I think what we’ve tried to do the last two weeks is run the ball better. So, we’re just trying to improve and become a more complete team, and see what happens.”
Baylor and Oklahoma will battle for reign of the Big 12 conference at 11 a.m. Saturday in Arlington. The championship match will be broadcast on ABC.