DURHAM, N.C. – Baylor’s defense doesn’t look anything like the same team that gave up 585 yards to Liberty in a season-opening loss two weeks ago.
Ultimately, the Bears dropped their third in a row, falling to Duke, 34-20, Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium. But, for the second straight week, the defense made significant strides, sacking quarterback Daniel Jones five times, forcing two turnovers and holding the Blue Devils (3-0) to just 4-of-18 on third-down conversions.
“The team that played Liberty is not the team that was out there today,” first-year head coach Matt Rhule said. “To see the defense on the field all day and be able to get off; to hold them to 4-of-18 on third down, knock the ball loose, get to the quarterback – those are all things we weren’t able to do a mere two weeks ago against Liberty. And now, they’re playing at a significantly higher level.”
Baylor can win with this kind of defensive effort. The Blue Devils did finish with 439 yards, including 246 on the ground, but the bulk of that came on three touchdown runs – 50 and 65 yards by Shaun Wilson (18-176-2 TDs) and a 34-yarder by Brittain Brown.
“Those big plays, it’s just a missed assignment. It’s always on us,” said sophomore linebacker Clay Johnston, who had a career-high 13 tackles, his first career sack and two other tackles for loss. “When we mess up, we have a missed assignment in the secondary or the linebackers. Somebody’s not doing their job.”
Through the first six quarters of the season, opposing offenses had converted on 22-of-34 third downs, for an alarming success rate of 64.7 percent, and had zero turnovers.
But over the last six quarters, the Bears have turned that around to the tune of 4-for-24 (16.7 percent) on third down and also came up with their first two defensive turnovers of the year on Saturday with a first-quarter fumble recovery by Deonte Williams and Henry Black’sinterception right before the half.
“When you start forcing fumbles, that’s representative of team speed and how hard you’re running to the ball,” Rhule said. “I think I spent the whole first game against Liberty screaming, `Run to the ball! Run to the ball!’ Now, we’re having fun, we’re screaming and yelling and disguising. And now, you see the ball is coming out. We were close to a couple more sacks, and maybe we get the ball out on those. I think we’ll continue to get better and better.”
Twice in the last seven minutes of the first half, the Blue Devils had a chance to extend their 14-7 lead, and Baylor’s defense wouldn’t let them.
Set up at Baylor’s 17 after a deflected interception by linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, Duke went nowhere on a pair of runs by Wilson and a pass play to the running back that Johnston read and dropped for a two-yard loss. Kicker Austin Parker, who was good from 45 and 26 yards in the second half, was wide right on a 33-yard attempt.
“It’s a pride thing, keeping them out of the end zone,” said senior defensive end Brian Nance, who matched his career total with two sacks and added three other stops and a forced fumble. “Just because they get a turnover, it doesn’t matter. That’s how you win games, you stop people from seven and maybe hold them to three. Sometimes, we even stop the field goal. We’ve been working hard on field goals, too.”
Just before the half, Duke put together an 11-play drive and marched from its own 22 down to Baylor’s 2. But, on third-and-goal, the Blue Devils were hit with a 15-yard personal foul penalty for a chop block that pushed them all the way back to the 17.
Jones, who was 20-of-35 for 193 yards, was picked off by Black in the end zone with just 21 seconds left in the half. Two red-zone chances, zero points.
“That’s two that we’ve stopped inside the 10, and then Henry made that great pick,” Rhule said. “That’s what was fun about today. It’s never fun to lose, but there were times in that game where you could see that the light was going on. . . . I just think they’re showing that they believe in what they’re doing, that they believe in the process, because you have to really believe in your teammates and believe in each other.”
Coming into the game, Jones had been sacked just twice and was coming off a 108-yard, two-TD rushing performance in last week’s 41-17 win over Northwestern. The Bears sacked him five times, had six QB hurries and held Jones to minus-14 yards on 11 attempts overall.
“Coach challenges us every week to get in the paint,” Nance said of the line trying to get pressure on the quarterback. “That’s what he calls it, getting in the paint and being disruptive to the quarterback. He just says, `Our quarterback has to play better than their quarterback,’ so we’ve got to be really disruptive. We preach it every day, and we hold each other to a high standard, and that’s something we’re trying to bring every week.”
Like Duke, most of Baylor’s offense came on big plays. Making his first start of the season and fifth of his career, sophomore quarterback Zach Smith was just 12-of-34 for 263 yards, but he hit on TD passes of 44 yards to Denzel Mims and 73 and 79 yards to Chris Platt.
Those three plays accounted for 196 of the Bears’ 320 yards total offense.
“It takes a little bit of the pressure off me, for sure, having a guy like (Platt) outside with world-class speed,” Smith said. “I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting him the ball, we just need to get better on the other aspects of the game.”
Particularly in the rushing attack, where the Bears managed just 57 yards on 27 attempts for a 2.1-yard average. Other than a pair of 17-yard runs by Smith and Dru Dixon and a 15-yarder by John Lovett, they gained eight yards total on the other 24 rushes.
“The issue offensively is up front,” Rhule said. “We can’t run the football right now. And when you can’t run the football, you can’t control the game. That leads to unmanageable third downs. We were 1-for-12 on third down. . . . I thought we were hanging in there OK early on. It was just the end of the game where it got kind of ugly and we just couldn’t protect. Just like we’ve done on defense, we have to do it on offense. We have to just keep going back and solving problems.”
Baylor returns home to host second-ranked Oklahoma (3-0) at 5:30 p.m. next Saturday, Sept. 23, in a game that will be televised by FS1.