By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
The 2019 Baylor Bears’ defense has etched its name into the program’s history book.
In head coach Matt Rhule’s third year, a name that isn’t mentioned often is his defensive coordinator’s, Phil Snow. Snow, who not only has spent the last three years developing the Bears’ defense we see today, but has also helped work hand-in-hand with the head coach for over seven years to foster successful football teams.
“I’ve been a head coach for seven years and … Phil Snow, Mike Siravo, we’ve all been together for seven years,” head coach Matt Rhule said before the championship matchup this weekend. “It’s our third championship game in seven years,”
Snow has over 36 years of collegiate coaching experience, and in his four seasons at Temple, he led a program that was ranked third nationally in total defense and 11th in scoring in 2016.
And just like he established a defensive front that was near impossible to move against, he’s creating the same foundation at Baylor.
“Our guys understand now that you’re not done with the game plan on Thursday. You’re done with the game plan when the clock hits zero,” Rhule said in early November. “You’re learning through the game. Phil Snow was saying that to the team in 2017. It just took until now for the guys to understand that we’ve got to learn through the game. We’ve got to adjust to the things that happen in-game if we want to get better and better and better. That’s where I think the maturity of our team is showing.”
Snow knew the type of team he wanted to establish as the Bears set two important goals prior to the season — to understand the importance of turnovers and generate sacks; two things that Baylor excelled to help clinch their 11-2 season.
“We lost our two starting corners last year,” Rhule said. “Grayland [Arnold] makes the move from corner to safety. It’s a lot of the same guys, but they have really grown and matured. This season is about, to me, what Phil Snow has done as much as anyone else. I stand up here and people say good things about me when we win, but this year has been about Phil. It’s been about Evan Cooper, Mike Siravo, Frank [Okam], the job they have done on defense, transforming what we do on defense.”
The Bears secondary had 17 interceptions in 2019, including at least one takeaway in 15 straight games and 30 overall in 2019. It doesn’t just stop there. Defenses under Rhule have forced two or more turnovers in 37 of 88 career games coached, including 33 takeaways in 15 games at Baylor.
So, goal one: complete.
On the defensive line, the Bears have 43 sacks in 13 games this year after just 25 last season. Led by James Lynch with 12.5 in 2019, Lynch not only set the school’s sack record by himself, but helped the team set its own program mak for the most in a season.
Turnovers and sacks aren’t the only success the defense had. The most important part was shutting down opponents’ offensive momentum. The defensive unit only allowed six points in 13 opening drives. Along with forcing opening punts, the Bears have held their opponents to only 64 first half points.
Senior linebacker Jordan Williams said leaving open gaps for the opposing offense to exploit led to big plays against the Baylor defense.
“So we all took it upon ourselves just to do our job a little better,” Williams. “If you win your gap, they can’t run the ball in that gap. If you do your job and make the plays that are supposed to be there, then you have a good defense.”
It wasn’t something that happened overnight or was a steady incline. Off a 7-6 season in 2018, the Bears had to adapt to losing players, players moving positions and finding what worked right for their team before becoming a dominating force.
“We didn’t want to play with only 11 guys, we wanted to play with 20 or 30 guys that can rotate,” senior linebacker Ross Matiscik said. “Coach Snow kind of preached that ‘I want to have a lot of the guys get into the game and play.’ With that said, he coached the twos like he coaches the ones.”
It paid off. After the loss of key senior linebacker Clay Johnston and sophomore Terrel Bernard having to step up, the Baylor defense has focused on growth and a “next man up” mentality.
“The players on defense have really grown and become good players,” Rhule said prior to Baylor’s 61-6 win at Kansas. “There’s a lot of veterans in the secondary. You have some younger guys. We played all man on third down this past game (talking about their first Oklahoma loss). We’ve never really done that and we said you know what, we are going to try to evolve and be a better man to man team.”
The Baylor defense will have some time to grow before their next matchup. Heading to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan 1. to face the Georgia Bulldogs, the Bears will have nearly a month to prepare to continue their defensive dominance.