Steve Sarkisian and the Horns look to avoid losing three straight games for the first time since 2016.
After back-to-back stress inducing, heartbreaking, “why do I watch this s***”” losses and a much needed bye week, the Texas Longhorns (4-3) return with a trip up to Waco to face the surprising 6-1 Baylor Bears as 2.5-point underdogs, according to DraftKings.*
Baylor head coach Dave Aranda has picked up right where Matt Rhule left off and has the Bears bowl eligible in his second year as head coach following a 2-7 season last year.
Aranda hired former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes earlier this season and it looks as if the hire has paid dividends, with the Bears offense ranked first in the Big 12 in total offense.
Their 472.0 total yards per game is the best Waco has seen since the 2016 season, led by a strong rushing attack. They call it the “RVO” — Reliable Violent Offense because they run only a few plays, but different variations of it that cause damage.
Aranda also has one of the best defenses statistically in quite some time for Baylor, yet to allow 30 points or more in any game this season.
Texas has lost only one game to the Bears in the past five years, but it came on their last trip to Waco, ending in a 24-10 loss.
This season’s Baylor team may be just as good as the 2019 team that handed the Horns their worst loss that year and came close to knocking off Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. Not the words you wanted to hear coming off two straight losses, huh?
Want to hear some Baylor rushing attack numbers that won’t make you feel good about Saturday’s game?
6.09 — The number of yards Baylor averages per carry. Fourth best in the nation.
293.3 — The number of rushing yards per game. Best in the Big 12 and 9th best in the nation.
7.5 — The number of yards Abram Smith averages per carry. Best in the Big 12 and fourth best in the nation.
While “Thunder and Lightning” aka Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner are solid running backs, you can thank their offensive line for all the crazy numbers and stats.
It’s a unit that didn’t get much praise coming into the season but they have delivered, allowing only six sacks this season. It consists of four upperclassmen and one sophomore, Casey Phillips, who’s in his fourth year at Baylor.
They’ve been able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage in pretty much every game outside of Oklahoma State, which we’ll get to soon.
I mean, Smith wasn’t even touched on this run. And I’m not trying to discredit the former linebacker turned running back — Smith is a strong runner who also possesses the necessary speed to be a successful running back.
Grimes loves to attack on the ground with the outside zone. And why wouldn’t you when it gets seven or eight yards per attempt?
Baylor will cram Smith down your throat and then throw you the elusive and athletic Trestan Ebner a.k.a Lightning.
Ebner’s got excellent speed and change-of-directiom ability, causing all kinds of problems for defenses. Grimes likes to run a variety of jet sweeps using wideouts Josh Fleeks, Drew Estrada, and others as well as Ebner, who can turn the corner QUICKLY.
A lot of attention will be given to Gerry Bohanon and Smith, but Ebner can be the difference-maker in this game. He’s great on special teams and his kickoff return touchdown against Iowa State may have been the biggest play in that game.
Baylor ran nearly 20 more rushing plays than passing against BYU, with Ebner averaging 8.6 yards per carry and Smith averaging 7.0 yards per carry. They’ll try and replicate that against Texas on Saturday to alleviate some pressure off of quarterback Gerry Bohanon and the passing game.
But it’s not all outside zone. Baylor has been one of the best teams in the red zone this year, scoring on 27 of 30 opportunities with 18 rushing touchdowns. Grimes likes to use a throwback formation, something that my generation (Gen Z) probably has never heard of — the I-formation.
Grimes likes to bring in linebacker Dillon Doyle as the fullback, even handing it off to him sometimes or throwing to him off play action.
Bohanon *might* be the most underrated quarterback in the Big 12 this season. The sophomore and former four-star recruit who had offers from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and LSU, stayed in Waco and sat behind Charlie Brewer, but now has gotten his opportunity.
Bohanon has only thrown one interception this season and is good at taking care of the ball despite having a limited number of career starts.
He’s not setting any passing records this season, but throws a beautiful spiral and is great at putting the right touch on passes and displaying solid arm strength.
As shown above, junior wideout Tyquan Thornton leads the Big 12 with 547 receiving yards along with five touchdowns, but over half that has come into two games (Texas Southern and West Virginia).
While it’s a run-first offense, it’s also designed to help out Bohanon and take advantage of a defense that’s overly prepared for the run. It’s part of the reason why Bohanon averages 13.85 yards per completion, top 25 in the country. You’ll see a lot of quick throws to the boundaries on in the flats and shot plays over the top.
Another offensive playmaker to watch is sophomore tight end Ben Sims. Sims is a great blocker and has four touchdown receptions this season.
WVU’s corner is expecting the run and when he realizes what’s happening, it’s too late.
Jeff Grimes also likes to call a handful of designed run plays for Bohanon, whether it’s quarterback draws out of an empty set or just the old-fashioned option play.
When’s the last time Texas defended the option?
Baylor will test the Texas linebackers, especially when it comes to properly filling their gaps, something that Sark has talked about multiple times this year as a weakness for the unit, especially late in games.
Blueprint for Beating Baylor?
The two worst offensive games this season have come against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Baylor knocked off ISU by two points thanks to Ebner’s kickoff return touchdown and lost to the Cowboys by 10 points despite picking off Spencer Sanders three times.
Both teams stacked the box. Both teams held the Bears to under 300 yards of total offense and under four yards per rush. The difference in the games is that Bohanon played much, much better against Iowa State than Oklahoma State.
Bohanon threw for more yards against OSU, but completed only 48.1% of his passes, averaged 6.4 yards per completion, and was sacked three times. It was the most timid and uncomfortable he’s looked all season with Gundy’s defense bringing a heavy blitz throughout the game.
They were also ready for those designed quarterback draws, limiting Bohanon to 13 rushing yards.
Okie State’s gameplan was to stack the box and trust their corners in one-on-one matchups and it worked.
Pete Kwiatkowski hasn’t abandoned his preference of playing two deep safeties, but will that finally change against Baylor? Oklahoma State was giving Baylor all the opportunities to throw it downfield, but Grimes elected to stick with the run. It didn’t work.
I’d like to see Texas get Baylor into third-down scenarios because the Bears only convert about 38 percent of their third downs this season, ninth in the Big 12.
Either way, the blueprint for beating Baylor is on tape. Texas held their own defensively against the Cowboys until the fourth quarter. Blame the offense, blame the fatigue, blame the scheme, blame the players, blame whomever, but the Longhorns have to prepare for another four-quarter game on Saturday. Baylor’s offense sets up well for it and the Texas defense doesn’t.
Aranda’s defense might be one of the best he’s had yet. It’s a unit that returns 10 starters and allows only 18.7 points per game, with 29 points allowed the season high.
It starts with a disruptive defensive line, spearheaded by nose tackle Apu Ika. At 6’4 and 350 pounds, Ika wrecks opposing lineman.
Ika gets a great push on the defensive line and while he may not make the play, you can bet TJ Franklin or Josh Landry will. Ika versus Texas center Jake Majors will be a key matchup on Saturday.
“When you watch [Ika], he’s not a guy that just takes up space,” Sark said on Thursday. “But I like Jake [Majors] in this matchup… We’ve got to make [Ika] play sideline to sideline and take on different blocks.”
The Bears generate over two sacks per game and over five tackles for loss as well from their 3-4 odd front under Aranda. They allow 3.61 yards per rushing attempt and give up just over 130 yards on the ground.
Baylor also has a very experienced group of linebackers, led by juniors Terrel Bernard and Jalen Pitre, along with sophomore Dillon Doyle.
Pitre plays the Star position in Aranda’s defense, the same term used for the nickel in Kwiatkowski’s defense. He’s used all over the field and makes a ton of plays for the Bears defense.
Sark had high praise for Pitre, calling him a “heck of a player” and emphasized his versatility in Aranda’s scheme.
It’s important for Casey Thompson to know where No. 8 is on the field at all times. He’s excellent in blitzing situations but also a capable defender in the passing game.
A key for the Texas offense is how effective can they be on first downs. Baylor allows about four yards per rush on 1st down, but less than three yards per rush on second down. The Longhorns hurt themselves in their last two losses by struggling on first and second down.
As a whole, this defense is one of the best on third downs, holding opponents to a 32-percent conversion rate that is top 20 in the nation.
Aranda’s secondary is also experienced and statistically is one of the best in the conference. They hold teams to under 200 yards in the air and their eight interceptions lead the Big 12.
But this is where I’m hesitant to trust all the numbers. Out of the quarterbacks they’ve faced this year, are any as good or better than Casey Thompson?
BYU’s Jaren Hall tossed for 342 yards and on passes 15 yards or more downfield, he was 7-for-10 with 243 yards and a touchdown.
Baylor was committed to stopping the Cougars run game, and they did, hoping their corners would be able to win those 50/50 balls. How did that go? Well, senior cornerback Raleigh Texada was benched in the first half.
If Aranda presents a similar game plan against Texas, Thompson and Sark have to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.