Looks At Baylor’s Issues On Both Sides Of The Ball
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The most consistently correct football adage is that games are won and lost in the trenches.
It’s the players up front, on both sides of the line, that often dictate how effective the skill position players can be. And in this match-up, the edge appears to go to West Virginia, both because of ability and the personnel changes the Bears have had to make on both sides.
Consider that Baylor, 0-6, has used four different starting line combinations on offense, and was forced to shift its starting left guard to center after an injury to starter Ryan Miller. That elevated Ish Wilson, a former reserve, to starter against Duke before Xavier Newman took over and has maintained hold on the position the last three games after Wilson was dismissed from the team. The lack of continuity, combined with depth thinned by transfers, has forced a series of freshmen and sophomores into the line-up, with two of those on the left side of the offensive line.
The right side is solid, with a pair of players who have started for 18 consecutive games in guard Blake Blackmar and tackle Pat Lawrence. That’s been the go-to side for BU’s running game, which has still struggled to just 135 yards per game, ranking 94th nationally. That’s surprising for a program which has had eight 1,000 yard rushers since 2010 – the second-most nationally behind Auburn’s nine – and for a school which has had eight linemen drafted to the NFL in the last nine years – including two first-rounders.
The glaring issue isn’t the pure execution, but rather the program attrition that naturally occurred during the issues in Art Briles’ tenure, added to the fact that last year’s coaching staff didn’t truly recruit at a decent level with interim head coach Jim Grobe. That’s caused a lack of upperclass numbers, with seven of the 11 offensive starters being freshman or sophomores, while overall BU has had a whopping 24 players miss a combined 73 games through the first six weeks of the season.
A look at the offensive front shows solid size, and much promise for the future. But film review also shows a mixed and matched front which has had issues protecting (16 sacks allowed, 101st nationally), and one which at times has been overwhelmed by fronts like Oklahoma State’s. The offensive numbers are down across the board – which is expected for a team as proficient as Baylor has been. But it’s the level of difference that’s shocking. The Bears are 88th in scoring, averaging just 25 points per game. They’re 66th in total offense and 117th in third down conversions, which says much considering BU is typically behind the sticks.
There really isn’t anything glaring Baylor isn’t doing, it’s simply that the injuries and attrition have created problems with basic execution. New head coach Matt Rhule is building it correctly, and is insistent upon establishing the running game and a foundation. But it’s a slow slog with the new system.
It’s the same on defense, where Baylor has gone from 4-2-5 principles with a hybrid safety to a more traditional 4-3 look that can morph into a 4-2-5 but doesn’t truly play the same way. The back end shows two corners and two safeties, and the line is playing a touch light. The Bears got blown off the ball by Oklahoma State, and hasn’t managed to slow opposing run games in allowing 241 yards per game, more than all but 10 other FBS teams. The 40 points allowed per contest is worse than that at 121st, and BU has largely failed to contain any portion of an attack.
The back end is struggling with coverage and staying with wideouts – making plays with just one pick all season – while the front four is getting very little pressure and not only not winning the line, but failing to pressure as well. Again, major parts of that are youth, with six freshman or sophomores starting, including both corners, a tackle and a rush end. As one would assume, the back-ups are equally as young, showing just one junior and one senior.
That’s a recipe for struggles, and it’s shown in the final scores and losses to teams like UTSA and Liberty. It’s not that the technique or fundamentals appear truly poor, it’s just that Baylor has a bunch of teenagers playing against 21- and 2- year-olds. It’s a maturation issue, along with new schemes on both sides. That plays to West Virginia’s advantage, especially if it can get a lead.
What BU would like to do is grab an advantage and then grind the game down with prolonged possessions that eat clock via the run game. The Mountaineers need to strike quickly, often and early, grab momentum and throttle any potential confidence Baylor may have.