By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor
Since their loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State University, No. 12 Baylor (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) has stepped up their game in all facets with a three-game winning streak, thanks in no small part to the elevated play of the defense. Head coach Dave Aranda has preached all season that the defensive players needs to commit to doing their 1/11, and while they still aren’t exactly where he thinks they can be, the veteran group has shown a commitment to improving.
“I think we’re not where we can be, or where we want to be yet. I feel the improvement is real though, and I think it all comes back to doing our 1/11 and being you, but aligning with us,” Aranda said. “For everyone to do their job and for them to bring your own energy and your own style, I think is what makes us unique and special. But I think we have to play as a unit and everyone’s got to do their individual job and so that people can feel the trust across the board that they can do theirs. And I think that is growing, [but] not there yet.”
Aranda said the strength of Baylor’s defense is their ability to get the ball back in the hands of the offense. The Bears have forced a turnover in every game this season, coming up with a total of nine interceptions to lead the Big 12, and four fumbles through eight games. Senior safety JT Woods leads the team in picks with three, including a 20-yard pick-six against Texas State University.
“[Woods is] just like a magnet to the ball,” Senior safety Jalen Pitre said. “We really take pride in [forcing turnovers] and we try to become receivers when the ball is in the air and we try to get those interceptions. So, that’s a big emphasis. We’re also trying to get turnovers so when the ball is in air, it’s as much ours as it is theirs.”
The Bears are getting it done on the ground as well. After giving up over 200 rushing yards to both Iowa State University and OSU, Baylor’s defense has held its last three opponents to a measly 86.3 yards rushing per game and 2.85 yards per carry. They’ve shut down two of the top-five running backs in the nation in recent weeks, limiting the University of Texas’ sophomore running back Bijan Robinson to just 43 yards on 17 attempts for a career-low 2.5-yard average and Brigham Young University’s sophomore running back Tyler Allgeier to 33 yards rushing on 15 carries. Aranda said the defensive coaches deserve most of the credit for the shift.
“I give [defensive line coach] Dennis Johnson a lot of credit. I think it’s been a journey for him,” Aranda said. “And Ron Roberts, it’s probably hard to be a defensive coordinator when the head coach is a defensive guy. Ron has handled all of it amazingly, and we’re blessed to have both those guys. And then also, our players just taking on different [roles]. Change is different, especially when you’re pass rushing to play the run, and now you play the run to get the opportunity to rush the passer. That’s a big change. The buy in, the work, the grinding has got it to where we’re winning the line of scrimmage.”
The defense has also begun playing more clean as a unit in recent weeks, committing to just one penalty in their last two games. Early in the season, the team struggled to avoid whistles from the referees to the point that Aranda said it felt as though they were playing against two teams every Saturday, their opponent and themselves. Aranda said he’s proud of the adjustment his team has made to improve in that area.
“I feel like they’re listening,” Aranda said. “I think it’s hard when you’re used to playing a certain way. I think it’s difficult to change. I think everyone’s got habits and everyone’s got routines and stuff. Especially if you’re four or five years in, it’s hard to change, and so I appreciate that … we can just focus on the opponent and not have to fight ourselves.”
While the play of Baylor’s defense has been impressive thus far, more tests lie ahead as the Bears still have undefeated No. 8 University of Oklahoma, the top ranked offense in the Big 12, on the horizon.