New era of Baylor football hinges on revamped defense

West Virginia Mountaineers running back Leddie Brown (4) is tackled by Baylor sophomore defensive end Brayden Utley, while junior linebacker Terrel Bernard aids in the attack. The Bears fell 27-21 in double overtime to the Mountaineers on Saturday, in Morgantown, W.Va. Photo by William Wotring | Courtesy of West Virginia Athletics

By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer

Baylor football head coach Dave Aranda has long been revered for his defensive acumen and that hasn’t changed in his short time in Waco. Through the season’s first two games the Bears are fielding a national top 20 defense, sitting well above traditional powerhouses like Auburn, Florida State, and Alabama.

In Baylor’s season opener against Kansas the defense showed up in a big way. Three different players recorded sacks, while seven different players had at least 0.5 tackles for a loss on the game.

“Our ability to create or force negative plays, and kind of stall out the offense … that’s a big thing for us,” junior linebacker Terrel Bernard said.

Baylor also kept the Jayhawks in check with plays that wouldn’t show up in the highlight reel. Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels was held in check by the Baylor defensive backs, as Daniels only completed 19 of his 33 total passing attempts. Aranda said Baylor’s tackling against Kansas was exceptional, largely due to the great effort put in by the players.

“I think in terms of overall tackling we were better than OK, and a lot of that had to do with effort,” Aranda said the Monday prior to the matchup against West Virginia. “There was great effort I thought throughout. There were mistakes that happened, and the angle in sustaining the right angles was overrun by great effort from all 11.”

Baylor’s second outing didn’t see the same offensive fireworks as the first game, but the defense remained stout, which was especially key as three of Baylor’s starting defensive lineman — TJ Franklin, Ashton Logan and Kalon Barnes — were unable to play. The Baylor defense was able to hold the Mountaineers to five yards per passing attempt, well below WVU quarterback Jarret Doege’s average of 6.96 yards per pass attempt.

“With this scheme that we’re in, we’re pressuring a lot more, and we really have the freedom to add on and try to get into the backfield and make those negative plays,” Bernard said.

The Bears forced West Virginia into three turnovers in the first half alone, keeping Baylor within striking distance of the Mountaineers. Despite the efforts of the defense, the Baylor offense struggled to capitalize. Early in the game, Bernard was able to come up with an interception, only for the offense to squander it with a missed field goal.

“We try to get three turnovers, that’s our goal every week,” junior safety Jalen Pitre said. “Our coaches do a good job at preparing us all during the week to step in whenever necessary.”

The veteran leadership on the defensive side of the ball has been big for Baylor so far this year. Bernard and Pitre have been more than moral support, as they currently lead the team in total tackles — Bernard with 21 and Pitre with 18.

Additionally, both players were awarded prestigious single-digit numbers, something the Baylor program doesn’t take lightly. Aranda and his staff only allow numbers zero through nine to players that have shown exceptional leadership and commitment.

“The character of that group,” Aranda said. “Pitre lifting guys up and Terrel Bernard, the way he would talk to [his teammates] and really get them to center and focus and go out next time and make a play … it’s a highlight of how tight those guys are.”

It’s often said that a short memory is one of the keys to greatness and the Baylor defense couldn’t agree more.

“We just gotta be with the mindset of ‘What’s next?’ and not dwell in that moment,” Pitre said.

The Bears have a break this weekend as they prepare to face first-place Oklahoma State on Oct. 17 for Homecoming at McLane Stadium. Kickoff has been set for 6:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ABC.