The Baylor Bears have left a trail of scorched earth in their wake through the first seven games of the 2013 season. They’re outgaining opponents by a staggering 400 yards of total offense per game, translating into an average margin of victory of 48 points. They’ve done that while sitting stars such as quarterback Bryce Petty and running back Lache Seastrunk for long stretches at the end of lopsided blowouts.
Those big numbers derive from Baylor coach Art Briles’ relentless brand of football. His team operates at a breakneck offensive pace and stretches defenses both horizontally and vertically with a big-armed quarterback and an armada of weapons at the skill positions. Defensively, the Bears thrive on big plays against opponents who are struggling to keep up. It’s like watching a positive feedback loop in motion, and it just keeps putting points on Baylor’s side of the scoreboard.
If that shock-and-awe approach sounds familiar, it’s because Baylor’s opponent on Thursday night has made a home at the top of the Big 12 following a similar blueprint. Ironically, however, Bob Stoops has the Oklahoma Sooners playing against type this year. They’re grinding out wins with a run-heavy, physical offensive approach.
If that’s not bizarre enough, a loss to Texas earlier this year all but eliminated Oklahoma from the national title hunt. Meanwhile, the Bears have impressed the pollsters and computers enough to climb all the way up to No. 6 in the BCS standings, giving them an outside shot at playing for the crystal ball. Baylor has impressed Las Vegas, too, entering Thursday night’s game as a 15-point favorite over Oklahoma, a team it has beaten just once in school history.
And the biggest stunner of all: The game is a sellout, which has prompted the Baylor athletic department to lift the infamous tarp at Floyd Casey Stadium. (But how will we know if we’re in Bear Country?)
Baylor thrashing the Sooners would seem in keeping with the theme of upsetting the natural order. Can Oklahoma keep from being devoured by the Bears? Here are a few keys that should help decide the outcome:
Sweat the technique
Ready to be disappointed? Defending a spread offense effectively has very little to do with stunts or pattern reading or exotic blitzes. Instead, the key to slowing a high-octane offense rests more on the boring basics of technique, alignment and fundamentals.
By leveraging so many situations in which defenders are playing in space, Baylor’s offense is built to punish technical sloppiness. Blown tackles on the perimeter, in particular, will get the Sooners beat. That and blown coverage, of course, in a game where Oklahoma is likely to play a significant amount of man in the secondary.
The Sooners could learn a lot about defending the spread by popping in the tape of the clinic that Bob Diaco’s Notre Dame defense put on them last season. The Fighting Irish threw Oklahoma out of kilter by putting outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage in the throwing lanes for the Sooners’ screen passes and quick hitters.
The Bears definitely utilize the quick game as part of their arsenal. If Mike Stoops doesn’t want to commit a player to that space, he should at least emphasize that his edge rushers get their hands in Bryce Petty’s throwing lanes. Kansas State had some success batting down some of Petty’s passes at the line of scrimmage.
Sizing Oklahoma up in the running game
The move in the offseason to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme put the Sooners in a better position to defend spread passing games. Given the lack of size involved in that defense, it also left them vulnerable against proficient rushing attacks.
Riding on the legs of Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, Baylor has developed a nasty running game to go with its high-powered passing. Should Oklahoma opt to soften up its defense to prevent big plays, the Bears have more than adequate personnel to overpower the Sooners’ defensive front on the ground, much like they did a year ago in a close loss in Norman.
Replacing Trey Millard
The end of Millard’s career as a Sooner, following a knee injury two weeks ago, undoubtedly left Oklahoma fans wondering what could have been for the senior fullback. In terms of having the ball in his hands, Millard was grossly underutilized by offensive coordinator Josh Heupel over the last three seasons. Even so, he proved to be a devastating blocker, whether lining up as a tight end or as a lead back for runners Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams.
Millard did a ton of little things that casual fans might have missed. Now that he’s on the shelf, Oklahoma will likely ask reserve tight end Brannon Green to at least do some of Millard’s dirty work.
After years of trying to get in as many offensive plays as possible, Oklahoma finds itself in the awkward position of wanting to shorten the game.
Normally, that conjures up thoughts of ball control and milking the clock on offense, but it would also help the Sooners’ cause if the defense could force Baylor to convert third downs and sustain lengthy drives. Patience isn’t a virtue in the Bears’ system.
It has been an odd year for Oklahoma’s quarterback from a passing standpoint. Blake Bell has looked awful at times this season, including in a loss to archrival Texas in the Red River Shootout.
Against Texas Tech, however, Bell seemed to loosen up. With the Red Raiders crowding the box and daring Oklahoma to beat them with Bell’s arm, he uncorked a fantastic deep ball to streaking wide receiver Jalen Saunders for a 76-yard touchdown late in the first half. That subsequently opened up room for the Sooners’ running backs to maneuver, and Oklahoma pounded Tech on the ground in the second half.
Baylor should make Bell prove that he can keep that up. The Bears will need numbers up front to stop the Sooners on the ground. Bell took advantage of Tech’s gamble, but he hasn’t shown the ability to this point to do that consistently.