After a strong start to the season going 3-0 in non-conference play, Texas certainly has a large target on their back this year from Big 12 opponents as they enter their final season in the conference.
“We know we’re gonna get everybody’s best shot,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “The Big 12 doesn’t care that we’re ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. We are zero and zero in Big 12 play and this week we’ve got to do everything in our power to try to get to one in a hostile environment against a really well-coached team.”
Riddled with injuries including their starting quarterback and breakout transfer running back, coaching and defensive line plays will be the best hopes for the Bears of squeaking out a huge upset at home against the undefeated Longhorns. Head coach Dave Aranda is currently 21-18 after four years at Baylor, and is off to a rocky 1-2 start to the 2023 season.
With redshirt junior quarterback Blake Shapen expected to miss the game with an MCL injury that he sustained in the first half of the Week One matchup against Texas State, Aranda will likely be forced to rely on quarterback Sawyer Robertson, a third-year sophomore transfer from Mississippi State, for a third straight game.
“Blake is still probably a week out, so we’re not anticipating or expecting Blake in this game,” Aranda said on Monday.
Robertson struggled against Utah in his first game starting, going 12-of-28 passing for 218 yards, two interceptions, and no touchdowns through the air. However, Robertson was able to sneak one in with his legs on a read option in the red area. The backup didn’t look great against LIU, either, going 10-of-22 passing for 113 yards and a touchdown.
“I think Saturday he was trying to be too perfect and trying not to lose the game,” Aranda said of Robertson. “The challenge with so much of this is to keep the outside on the outside — I think to focus on what’s right in front of him will give him a great chance to be competitive.”
Coming out of high school, Robinson was the No. 10 pocket quarterback in the nation and still does not attempt many runs or scrambles while behind center at Baylor. Due to the lackluster performances from the second-string quarterback, this Bears offense has been forced to rely on their run game to move the football, but that unit hasn’t had much luck staying healthy, either.
Another major injury for the Bears going into Week Four is the loss of their junior transfer running back from Oklahoma State, Dominic Richardson, who carried the bulk of Baylor’s rushing duties and was looking to have a breakout season as the Bears feature back before leaving the Week Two game against Utah in the third quarter with a high ankle sprain.
Richardson remained on the sideline for the rest of the Utah game and for the entirety of last week’s matchup against Long Island. His status is still uncertain for Week Four against Texas after spending the first two games as the center of this offense — his loss would be a big blow to Aranda and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.
Despite the loss of Richardson, the Baylor rushing attack was in full effect against LIU last week, totaling 270 yards on 48 carries. Freshman running back Dawson Pendergrass led the charge with 21 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown on the day, followed by sophomore Richard Reese, who totaled 12 carries for 82 yards and two touchdowns. If Richardson is unable to go again against Texas, look for the two young backs to share this backfield with Reese (5’9, 179 pounds) as the open field back, and Pendergrass (6’2, 212 pounds) to carry more of the short-yardage or between-the-tackles work.
After the loss of Shapen in Week One, the Baylor passing game has certainly taken a backseat to the rushing — last week against the Sharks, the Bears only attempted 27 total passes compared to 48 rushes, likely in response to Robertson’s inefficiency on the day and two interceptions and zero passing touchdowns against the Utes. Nonetheless, this unit returns six of their top eight pass catchers, led by junior slot receiver Monaray Baldwin.
Last year this Baylor wide receiving corps struggled to create separation and wasn’t able to have a single receiver eclipse 600 yards on the year — Baldwin was one of only two receivers to have over 500 yards on the season.
Without Shapen, the wide receivers have only managed to total 25 receptions for 339 yards and one touchdown in their last two games with Robertson at quarterback. It may be possible for Robertson to finally find his rhythm after his third week running with the ones, who were able to total 416 yards and two touchdowns against Texas State with competent quarterback play.
The Baylor offensive line saw a lot of turnover this offseason, returning only one starter to the rotation in senior right guard Gavin Byers (6’5, 318 pounds). To resolve this lack of continuity up front, Aranda looked to the transfer portal to add veteran leadership to the unit. The Barrington brothers, Clark and Campbell, transferred to Baylor from BYU this spring to help the young and inexperienced offensive line. Fifth-year senior Clark Barrington (6’5, 306 pounds) lines up at center, while junior Campbell Barrington (6’6 299 pounds) lines up at right tackle.
The rest of the offensive line remains a patchwork of young players, starting two true freshmen at left tackle and right guard in Alvin Ebosele (6’6, 304 pounds), and Kaden Sieracki (6’8, 318 pounds). The rest of the offensive line rotation is a combination of true freshman and sophomores.
Offensive line coach Eric Mateos continues to mix and match these young players at different positions in an attempt to find some sort of continuity. After letting up three sacks, 10 tackles for loss and an injured quarterback in Week One against Texas State, this offensive line hasn’t allowed a single sack and only seven tackles for loss in their last two matchups. As Grimes continues to search for some combination that will work, this week’s matchup against a vaunted Texas defensive line will prove to be a tall task.
The defensive line is certainly the strongest unit for this Baylor defense, and with the loss of Shapen and Richardson, it may also potentially be the strongest unit on the entire team. Led by fifth-year seniors TJ Franklin (6’5, 269 pounds) at defensive end and Gabe Hall (6’6, 292 pounds) at defensive tackle, this unit is fast and able to get to the quarterback, totaling six sacks in their last two games.
After watching the tape however, it seems they would have more if it weren’t for their trouble finishing plays and taking the quarterback to the turf. They often allow quarterbacks to break tackles and move out of the pocket. And despite their veteran leadership, this Baylor defensive front has been prone to making some mistakes when defending the run.
As a whole they have been able to keep opposing rushers to an average of 4.4 yards per carry, butg in each of their first three games they have allowed big runs up the middle due to mistakes up front. These include a 42-yard long run to LIU, a 44-yard long run to Utah, and a 65-yard long to Texas State that resulted in a touchdown.
“I feel for us to win, I think there has to be the line of scrimmage on both sides being really separate from the skill on both sides,” Aranda said. “I think it’s very important that the line of scrimmage and physicality and violence and all that occurs, so that we can take our math and put it into other places.”
Aranda is certainly a tough interview to decipher, but he’s right — if Baylor has any chances of slowing down this Texas offense that has shown it can flip the switch, it will be through dominant play from their front seven on defense.
In the middle of the field, fifth-year senior Matt Jones has become a big leader on this defense. Coming off a 2022 season during which Jones totaled 43 solo tackles and 2.5 sacks, Jones already leads this Baylor team with 11 solo tackles in 2023. Jones is flanked at Will linebacker by a fifth-year senior transfer from Liberty, Mike Smith Jr. Jones and Smith provide a veteran presence in the middle of the field and are ball hawks against opposing skill positions.
The glaring weakness of this Baylor defense is their secondary. Texas State quarterback TJ Finley was able to carve them up, going 22-of-30 passing for 298 yards and three touchdowns. They’ve been able to total an interception in both of their last two games, however, in the case of Kyler Jordan’s interception against Utah, it was a tipped short ball that landed straight in the hands of the well-positioned freshman linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Mike Powledge has been with the team for the entirety of Aranda’s tenure with the Bears, starting as the safeties coach before moving to defensive coordinator in 2022. He runs a multitude of different defensive sets, but often runs a 4-2-5 scheme with a hybrid STAR defensive back. Fifth-year senior Bryson Jackson fills this position for the Bears, and does well in coverage as well as rushing the backfield.
The front seven is the lifeblood of this Baylor defense and seemingly the entire team. With all five fifth-year seniors in this part of the field, they hold the entirety of the veteran leadership for this Baylor defense, and will be what keeps them in games moving forward.
The kicking unit is led by third-year sophomore Isaiah Hankins. So far on the year Hankins has yet to miss an extra point, and has gone 5-of-7 on field goals. His season long in 2023 was a 53-yard boot against Texas State in Week One.
Third-year sophomore wide receiver Josh Cameron is the team’s punt returner this season. With only two returns on the season for five and six yards, Cameron has not shown anything too special yet on the season.
The lack of major receiving options or elite quarterback play after the loss of their first-string quarterback center the focus of this Baylor offense to their ground game, albeit one that will potentially be missing its most integral piece in Richardson. Therefore, the focus for this Texas defense will be to contain these Baylor running backs before they can break off into the second level. With true freshmen at right guard and left tackle, and their bell-cow questionable for this matchup, Texas should have no issues on this front in the trenches.
With backup Robertson having trouble finding a rhythm at the helm of this Baylor offense, this week can’t be the week that he finally does — defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s unit needs to dominate this patchwork offensive line and make Robinson even more uncomfortable.
On offense it seems this is the fourth team in a row who’s defensive strength lies in their front seven. Texas has an offensive line that has kept Quinn Ewers clean through the last two games, only allowing one sack against Wyoming. However, with the loss of sophomore right guard Cole Hutson, it will be up to promising five-star sophomore DJ Campbell to help protect Ewers against this veteran defensive line. With a weak secondary that struggled against the likes of Texas State, this should be a good game for Ewers to regain some of the confidence through the air that he seemingly lost against Wyoming.
Texas is a 15-point favorite against Baylor according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.