By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
After a 1-3 start following four-straight home games, hitting the road might be just what Baylor football needs to get back on track.
Since developing energy has been an issue for the Bears (1-3, 0-1 Big 12), head coach Dave Aranda is telling the team to find that juice within themselves, rather than relying on outside noise. The squad is set for its first road test at UCF on Saturday, so it won’t have the support of a home crowd like it has the last four weeks.
“It’s just us against the whole state of Florida,” sophomore safety Devyn Bobby said.
Saturday’s matchup marks the second all-time meeting between Baylor and UCF (3-1, 0-1 Big 12) and first as conference foes. The Knights topped the Bears 52-42 in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. UCF is one of the four new members to join the Big 12 this season, the other schools being BYU, Cincinnati and Houston.
Aranda said junior starting quarterback Blake Shapen’s status is “day to day” as he recovers from an MCL sprain suffered in Baylor’s 42-31 loss to Texas State on Sept. 2. Aranda added that the staff would look at Shapen on Monday to determine if he’s ready to play. Shapen has been a limited participant in practice, even dating back to last week ahead of No. 3 Texas.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sawyer Robertson would get his fourth-straight start if Shapen is unable to suit up and play. Robertson has thrown for 161.8 yards per game on 49.5% completions. He’s also tossed one passing TD, rushed for another and thrown four interceptions.
The Knights are also dealing with a quarterback injury, as fifth-year senior John Rhys Plumlee has missed the past two games. Plumlee suffered a right knee injury during UCF’s 18-16 win on Sept. 9 at Boise State.
Knights head coach Gus Malzahn said Plumee is ahead of schedule and should return soon.
“He’s getting better,” Malzahn said on Monday. “I said a couple of weeks ago that it would be a few weeks, and I still think that is true. I’m not ready to tell you when he’s up to play, but hopefully, in the near future, we’ll get him back.”
UCF redshirt sophomore quarterback Timmy McClain has completed 37 of 57 attempts for 638 yards, five TDs and one interception in relief of Plumlee. McClain has helped the program rank among the nation’s best in almost every offensive category. It finds itself third in rushing offense (260.2 yards per game), fourth in total offense (565.0), ninth in kickoff returns (29.0), 12th in first downs (105), 15th in passing offense (304.8 per game), 17th in third-down conversion percentage (51%), 21st in passing efficiency (169.06) and 23rd in scoring offense (38.2).
Even with UCF’s dominant offense under Malzahn, both the Bears and the Knights are coming off losses in their respective conference openers. Baylor lost to Texas 38-6, and UCF dropped its Big 12 debut at Kansas State 44-31. Now the Knights host their first conference game from the comfort of FBC Mortgage Stadium, more commonly known as the “Bounce House.”
Without support from McLane Stadium for the first time this year, Aranda said he needs to see his group have an increased level of focus to find the energy it’s been seeking. Junior offensive lineman Campbell Barrington said everyone on the team needs to rally around each other to accomplish that.
“We have to flush all that negative stuff out,” Barrington said. “We have to come together as a unit, come together as a team, and that’s really what we’ve been talking about coming off this loss to Texas: just coming together and committing to it. We’re in this together. [I] love this team, and we’re going to stick it out.”
Although not exactly the same, Baylor had woes going into a pair of road contests at Texas Tech and Oklahoma in 2022. Sitting at 4-3 following a homecoming win over Kansas, the Bears needed to get two tough road wins to keep their hopes of a Big 12 championship alive. They found the juice they needed, though, and brought two victories back to Waco.
Aranda said his squad needs to replicate that execution.
“Being in those moments where the person to your left and right of you is giving everything they have … I think that is what happened last year, and we’re certainly aiming for that in this one,” Aranda said.
Kickoff between Baylor and UCF is set for 2:30 p.m. CT at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Fla. The game will be televised on FS1.
- Aranda said the team could expect five to seven guys back from injury this week, including Shapen. Other potential names included were redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tre Emory, redshirt freshman cornerback Reggie Bush and redshirt sophomore cornerback Tevin Williams III.
- Redshirt junior running back Dominic Richardson returned from a high ankle sprain last week, but Aranda said Richardson re-injured that ankle at the end of the first half against the Longhorns. However, Aranda added that Richardson “feels good” going into this matchup.
- Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Jerrell Boykins Jr. is “working to get back in shape,” according to Aranda. Boykins has yet to see the field in 2023.