The Texas Longhorns will conclude their 2011 season with a road trip to Waco to battle uber-quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears (8-3, 5-3). Following Texas' dramatic win over Texas A&M on Thanksgiving, the season finale presents the Longhorns with an opportunity to finish at 8-4 overall, with a 5-4 record in a deep Big 12. It would represent UT's first win over a ranked opponent and provide the team with an opportunity to really finish the year on a high note and with some momentum heading into the offseason.
Beating Baylor will not, however, be an easy task -- and indeed the Bears are a 2.5 point favorite in this contest. Their offense is as superior to ours as our defense is to theirs, and whosever elite unit controls the game will likely dictate the winner. To get ready for Saturday's match up, I had a chance to chat with Mark Moore of SBN's newly launched Baylor blog Our Daily Bears. The blog is fantastic, and Mark knows his stuff. Read on for an in depth preview of Texas at Baylor.
PB, Burnt Orange Nation: As much as I want Texas to win on Saturday, I also more or less want to have Robert Griffin III's babies. For my money he's the best player in college football, and one of the most complete quarterbacks in college football of the last decade. Griffin has pretty much scorched every defense he's faced this year, but Oklahoma State limited him to 1 TD and 2 picks, while Iowa State managed to limit Griffin to 7.1 yards per attempt, the only time he hasn't averaged at least 8.0 (and on the season he's averaging 10.6). We know all the things Griffin can do to destroy your defense, but how did those two defenses keep him from going totally bonkers, and where is Griffin potentially vulnerable on Saturday? Or is he? (You can say he's indominable. I won't argue.)
Mark, Our Daily Bears: Taking the second game you mentioned first, Iowa State made a decision in that game that they were simply not going to allow Baylor to pass over the top. Corners backed way off the line, safeties played deep, and ISU basically challenged Baylor to beat them with short and intermediate routes and on the ground. Baylor proved itself more than equal to the task by racking up 391 yards rushing (most of which came from the immensely underrated Terrance Ganaway, who is underrated even by yours truly, and RGIII). Briles has proven himself quite willing to take what a defense is offering, and as I'll explain in a moment, a running attack seems to fit where he wants Baylor to go.
The Oklahoma State game was a different story entirely; that game was a result, I think, more of what Baylor decided to do than what OSU did to them. The previous week against Texas A&M, Baylor exhibited what would become (in those two games) a fatal flaw: scoring in the red zone. Baylor could score at distance and move between the 20s, but the offense broke down as the field shortened. In the week between A&M and OSU, Briles emphasized the running game inside the 20 and when it came time to play OSU, he attempted to put that strategy into practice. The first drive was emblematic of the day: Baylor passed at will to OSU's 14 and then ran 6 running plays in a row before turning the ball over on downs at the 1. Baylor's next real offensive drive went basically the same way: Baylor passed down to OSU's 26, ran 6 times in a row, and then Griffin threw his worst pass of the season for one of the picks you noted. The second pick was a tipped pass just before the half that should have been caught easily by the receiver.
I don't think Texas can rely on Briles or Griffin making the same unforced errors in gameplanning and execution again, particularly with how well the offense has played of late. Texas is much better off utilizing an approach similar to what Iowa State did in trying to take away the deep ball (which seems to fit with what you've done so far this season considering you have yet to allow a passing TD of more than 20 yards) and hope that you are athletic enough to hold the running game in check. That's actually exactly what I would do if I were Texas since you probably can't afford to allow multiple quick touchdowns and put your offense in a hole. You also have the athletes on defense to run that kind of a strategy and have more success controlling the running game.
Let me add that I don't think it makes sense from a strategic standpoint to expect that any supposed increase in physicality is going to make a difference in how RGIII or any other player on Baylor's offense performs. Some Texas fans seem to think that because Texas's defense is very physical they will be able to intimidate Baylor or RGIII and force them off their game. Some have even stated their belief that, given RGIII's injury against Tech on an illegal hit on the sideline, they can forcibly remove him from the game. While it is true that Baylor's offense relies primarily on what could be termed finesse but is more accurately described as speed, Baylor and RGIII did not put together what FootballOutsider's Fremeau Efficiency Index ranks as the most-efficient opponent-adjusted offense in the country by being weak-minded or lacking physicality of their own.
PB, Burnt Orange Nation: Yeah, anyone who thinks RGIII or Baylor are going to wilt when they take a hit in the jaw are kidding themselves. The Bears are a tough squad who have played in a lot of close games this year. If anything, I worry more about what Texas will do if faced with an early deficit. We rallied last week in College Station, but we're not a team built for comebacks.
As exciting as it was to see our offense put together the game-winning drive against A&M, we were pretty miserable offensively for most of the game. We've had some success putting up points on bad defenses this season, and Baylor's defense... well, y'a'll are where you are because you've been winning shootouts. Do you expect Baylor to have trouble stopping Texas' run game? We're not the same dynamic rushing team we were a month ago with Fozzy Whittaker, but you have to think we'll be interested in trying to get our offense going by pounding it on the ground.
Mark, Our Daily Bears: I actually had a very similar conversation to this one with the OU SBNation site on their podcast right before the Baylor-OU game two weeks ago. They looked at the statistics, much as I'm sure you have, and said "We can run on this team. We should run on this team." I cautioned them then that they shouldn't read too much into the fact that Baylor's statistical rankings against the pass are likely better than they expected them to be and that they should expect for OU to throw the ball. Turns out I was both right and wrong; OU came out throwing the ball quite a bit but was also able to run, especially in very short yardage situations with that ridiculous single wing, basically whenever they wanted.
The difference between the two teams is obviously the quarterbacks. OU had Landry Jones, who will undoubtedly play on Sundays somewhere at some time and is an experienced QB who has played at an elite level. Texas has ... Case McCoy. That's not a slam on Case McCoy, I think even he would tell you he's no Landry Jones. So to answer the question, I think Texas will at the very least attempt to establish the running game because other options aren't really there. Sure you'll probably see a trick play or two to stretch the field and keep Baylor's defense honest, and Case McCoy does possess the physical ability to project a football through the air at least a short distance, but if UT wants to win they'll have to run to do it, both to get yardage for themselves and to keep Baylor's offense off the field. Call it the KState approach: Bill Snyder was able to limit Baylor to only two possessions in the first quarter (the second of which started with about a minute remaining) by grinding the ball out and keeping things simple. I have to expect that Texas will attempt to do the same thing and rely on their improved defense to keep RGIII and company out of the endzone.
Whether Baylor has trouble stopping that is an interesting question. Year to year, Baylor generally suffers defensively when a team is capable of putting forth a balanced offensive attack. That's why OSU constantly murders us offensively; they can run to set up the pass or pass to set up the run. Texas seems to be relatively one-dimensional given its struggles establishing a passing game, so I'm slightly optimistic that Baylor will be able to load the box and dare Texas to do what Texas is not really very good at doing, which is passing extensively. As Thermhere pointed out in his fantastic statistical preview today, UT's passing offense leaves a lot to be desired.
PB, Burnt Orange Nation: Fair point about the quarterbacks, but I'd also note that OU really sucks at running the ball. That even they could run on Baylor at will gives me hope. Texas is also getting a little bit healthier: both Malcolm Brown and Jaxon Shipley are cutting better and it's hoped that with the long week of rest both will be much closer to 100% come Saturday. I also think we're likely to be a bit better offensively (not saying much, I know) with having a settled identity heading into the game. It may not be the identity we want, but it should help Bryan Harsin compile a cohesive game plan -- which, needless to say, is hard to do when you're not doing anything well. That says it all about where we are as an offense right now, doesn't it?
At the very least, our offense has to do a better job of flipping the field; it's just too much to ask of our defense to turn in another epic performance against a high-powered offense starting from midfield all the time. Texas' offense needs to sustain some drives, give our defense some rest, and make Baylor have to score by driving the length of the field. We might be able to win a game in the 20s, but it's hard to see us winning one in the 30s without a score or two from defense and special teams.
So far we've talked mostly about why this match up is going to be such a tough one for Texas. But I don't imagine Bears fans are looking at this game as an easy win. What makes you most nervous about this game? Where are you worried Texas will hurt the Bears?
Mark, Our Daily Bears: Our safeties. Mike Hicks and Sam Holl will likely start for Baylor at the safety positions and neither of them have any business being on the field in a Big XII game. With the move of Ahmad Dixon into the nickel position in Baylor's defense, we just don't have Big XII-caliber players playing what is essentially center field. Until those two show that they can learn from their past mistakes and be more than simply big hitters in run defense, I'm always going to be worried about them being our weakest link defensively. Swope on Hicks and Holl was how A&M beat us, and I'm afraid that given the opportunity, Shipley could do the same thing. I know that probably runs counter to what I just said about McCoy, but intermediate passing plays become a lot bigger when your safeties are bad, and our safeties are epically terrible.
I agree with you that Baylor fans probably aren't looking at this as an easy win, and if they are, they shouldn't be. Though good recruiting at the skill positions and on the offensive line (relatively, anyway) has narrowed the talent gap on that side of the ball, Baylor's defense is still undermanned against a team like Texas on speed and size alone. I'm concerned that Texas will be able to run the football enough to wind the clock, keep Baylor's offense off the field, and keep the game close. The longer this game stays close, obviously the better it is for a team like Texas that relies on defense and special teams.
Oh, and Baylor's special teams scare the absolute crap out of me. Briles has shown zero commitment to special teams basically since he got here and our struggles in that department reflect the amount of attention he pays to them. Texas, which thrives on big plays from that arena, will likely get one or two in this game that either change the momentum of the game itself or allow for a shorter field to make things easier on Texas's offense.
PB, Burnt Orange Nation: Agreed. 2011 Texas is an officially licensed Tressel Ball Team (TM), minus the sketchiness and quality punting. Although my good friend Scipio Tex was rightwhen he said, "Dink-and-dunk is no way to go through life, son," it's all we've got for the time being, and at the very least Case McCoy needs to take advantage of Baylor's poor safeties and connect with Shipley on some stuff that can at least move the chains, keep Griffin on the sideline, and help us flip the field.
On that note, this has been both fun and enlightening, so let's wrap this up by each highlighting two signs that our team is in trouble, followed by two signs that we have a good chance to pick up the win.
On the "color me worried" side of things for Texas, first of all, I'll be extremely discouraged if our attempts to run the ball on our first four drives are fruitless and we punt or turn it over in 3-5 plays. If we're giving RGIII short fields and lots of opportunities early, when our defense is most vulnerable (we tend to adjust well and clamp down as the game goes on), we could find ourselves in a two- or three-score hole before we know it, which is pretty much lights out. Second, it's going to be a long day if we're not able to wrap up and tackle Baylor for some negative plays. We're not going to shut down RGIII or his offense, but we need to kill some drives with turnovers and negative plays, and I have this terrifying vision of Griffin scrambling away from potential sacks to turn potentially negative plays in to positive plays. There's nothing more dispiriting for a defense.
As for signs that will make me hopeful for a win, nothing could help us more than a couple of early scores, which benefit the strengths of our offense and defense equally. We can win this game playing with an early lead. And second, we just have to get some meaningful production from our passing game. Sans Fozzy and with Brown and Bergeron banged up, we're simply not the same running team that bulldozed Texas Tech a month ago, and we won't outscore Baylor if we're a one-dimensional offense.
And you, Mark? What signs will make you fret? What should make Texas fans cringe with fear?
Mark, Our Daily Bears: I'll fret if and when Texas is able to either come out and rip off several big runs in a row or complete a deep pass and beat those safeties I so lament. Basically anything where Baylor's defense proves itself not up to the task of stopping an offense that desperately needs to build momentum and confidence in itself. I'll also fret if Baylor comes out on offense and either turns the ball over (which would probably be due to a fumble) or allows itself to be stopped early in the game. It's probably self-evident, but Baylor's offense, as good as it is, needs to get on track early and put Texas in a hole. As good as Texas's defense is, I don't think Texas is built to play from behind. I'll add a third big worry about penalties; Baylor was penalized 9 times for 100 yards (until I stopped watching that part of the box) against Tech, including 4 personal fouls. Giving an offense like Texas's that needs yards free ones because you're a moron is an easy way to lose.
I'll feel pretty good about things if Baylor opens up the passing game and is able to get your DBs and safeties (who have talked a reasonable amount of trash this week) on their heels. Make them wonder if this is truly an offense they can stop early and you're in their head for the rest of the game. That's not to say Baylor will intimidate them physically, but rather make them question whether their gameplan is going to work. If Baylor starts on defense, I'll feel much better stopping UT that first time and giving the ball back to the offense. Setting the tone at the beginning of the game is critical for both teams, and I hope Baylor is the one that gets it done.
PB, Burnt Orange Nation: I hope not, but I certainly enjoyed the chat. Thanks, Mark, and enjoy the game on Saturday. Hook 'em.