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NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A Game!

I think we have all learned not to take anything for granted this season; every time Baylor gets to play we should cherish it. While this is likely the last time Baylor itself will have significant flare-ups for the remainder of the season, you never know what is going to happen with your opponents.

The circumstances surrounding this game make it particularly difficult to preview. While it seems that Baylor should have the vast majority of its personnel available for the game, its unclear how much practice time many of them have had. If there is one thing playing high school football (or any long-lasting cardio sport, really) is good for, it is learning the difference between practice shape and game shape. It is very possible that many of Baylor’s contributors this Saturday will be struggling to get back into practice shape, let alone be ready to play 60+ high level snaps.

These facts mean that the game will likely be a very “all hands on deck!” scenario. Especially on positions like defensive line, you probably don’t want anybody going more than 40 snaps or so. Let’s jump into the preview.

Also worth reading is this Q&A I did with Texas/Big 12 writer Ian Boyd over at Inside Texas. You can read it here.

When Texas Has the Ball

Texas’ offense has been a mixed affair thus far. Despite a good senior QB, Texas has struggled to develop significant threats on the outside which has limited the normal offense to RB and QB run game, over the middle passes, and ineffective deep shots. Furthermore, all of this has been compounded by an OL which has performed below expectations. Despite what has outwardly looked like a struggle so far, they remain somewhat highly ranked in several advanced stat metrics (9th in SP+, 31st in FEI).

To my eyes, Texas has largely struggled on base downs and is at its best when they spread the ball wide and give Ehlinger options to either throw over the middle or run. Their base run concepts and pass concepts on standard downs have largely been ineffective. If they want to score against Baylor, they need to test Baylor’s secondary and see what happens.

Baylor has had a dynamite start to the 2020 season on defense, largely led by should-be All-Americans Terrel Bernard and Jalen Pitre. They are playing very standard Dave Aranda stuff, largely playing base defense on standard downs and then getting creative on passing downs. The name of the game so far for them has been to mix and match different guys on passing downs to create confusion for the quarterback, such as this Rover blitz by Terrel Bernard:

This mixing and matching of rushers leads can lead to big plays, such as this interception by Terrel Bernard:

I really like the match-up for Baylor on this side of the ball (not considering potential conditioning issues or key starters being out). Baylor’s defense is built to flood the middle of the field and make offenses beat you by throwing outside. Texas’ outside WRs have been very bad, so this fits in well. Ehlinger has historically been pretty good protecting the ball, but this game could come down to whether Baylor can force a few turnovers on ill advised throws over the middle. They also will need to be very sound in the run game, as Texas looks to run Ehlinger in crunch time. All in all, unless Baylor has key guys out due to COVID and/or injuries or Texas develops a passing game to their outside receivers, I don’t expect Texas to score many points in this game. I think the Baylor defense keeps Baylor in this game.

When Baylor Has the Ball

Baylor was simply woeful against West Virginia on offense. Overall, it was probably the worst offensive performance in the last 3 or 4 years. The only performances that were similar were 2019 against TCU and Georgia, both of which featured an injured Charlie Brewer and against better defenses than 2020 West Virginia. There were a lot of problems against WVU, but namely a very hobbled and ineffective Brewer along with an offensive line which gave him little help.

After the first game against Kansas, I told Kendall Kaut on our ODB Facebook Live that while I was very pleasantly surprised by the defense, I was equally worried about the offense. It was tough to take away much from the OL due to 3 starters being out, but from what I saw Charlie Brewer’s arm looked about the same as it did in late 2019 when he was clearly hobbled and ineffective. Ultimately, it is very difficult to win without a QB who can threaten most of the field, so this was extremely worrying to me. Throws like this were representative:

Baylor’s run game floundered against West Virginia for two primary reason: first, Baylor’s OL straight up whiffed on a ton of blocks giving the RBs no chance; second, WVU was able to stack the box on every play because they didn’t respect the Baylor passing game. I expect Texas to similarly stack the box and dare Brewer to beat them through the air, but I also suspect that Baylor will be more successful on the ground due to fewer gaffs and bad inside linebacker play from Texas. You’re still asking for trouble running into a loaded box, but I think Baylor will have far fewer straight-up negative plays this game.

A typical example of a standard down run play vs WVU.

However, even if Baylor’s run game manages to be a lot more successful in this game than against WVU, you have to throw the ball to score points. Here I’ll just say what I told Ian Boyd about Brewer:

“Regarding Brewer, that is the grand mystery. In early 2019 he looked really good, his arm strength was never good but he was able to hit deep routes to the field to keep the defense honest. Sometime in mid 2019 he lost that ability, and the offense has sputtered ever since. I thought it was reasonable to expect him to largely be similar to early 2019 after a full off-season to heal, but many of the same issues are there and in many respects he’s looked worse.

I’ve seen some point to injuries, and he definitely had a leg injury early on in the Kansas game which could be affecting things, but at this point you sort of just have to expect him to be injured, because he has looked like this for going on 10 games now. Everybody is rooting for the guy, he’s probably the toughest QB I’ve ever seen play. There’s a possibility that he comes out against Texas and looks much healthier and it really was that leg injury against KU, but at this point I don’t have any reason to bet that’ll be the case.

Aranda was asked about his health the other day and he said that Brewer was “energetic” and “feeling good” or something along those lines. It sounded like coach-speak for, “he’s beat to hell still.” Aranda also mentioned that they need to cater the offense more for Brewer, which I took to mean asking less of him reading-coverage wise and also less throwing deep. All in all, I remain very concerned about Baylor’s ability to score points as long as the offense is helmed by a beat-up/ineffective Brewer.”

Basically, as long as Brewer remains as limited as he was vs Kansas and West Virginia, Baylor cannot threaten the field with the pass and it severely limits what they can do as a whole as an offense. Modern offense is a game about controlling how many defenders are in “the box” against the run. The only way you can get guys out of the box is to throw the ball effectively. If Brewer continues to be effective, you’ll also so an ineffective run game as teams stack the box. It is a vicious circle. Brewer needs to be more effective or Baylor needs to consider making a change at QB.

Moving on to the Texas defense. Texas’ inside linebackers are the weak spot on their defense. Both are good athletes, but on most plays quite simply look lost and are bad at reading flow. Here’s a typical example. In this area of the field you cannot afford to play tentative, you have to read your keys and attack the line of scrimmage. Both interior backers here just wait 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and allow the OL to reach them, resulting in an easy walk in touchdown for TCU’s QB.

Here’s another example, where Texas’ weakside linebacker (#0 Overshown) does not react quick enough to the motioning WR and leaves the playside A gap open:

Overall, Texas’ defense has really struggled to start the season. Other than their inside backers, they’ve largely been pretty good but it is very difficult to play good defense with incompetent linebacker play. As discussed previously, Baylor’s offense is incredibly limited right now but it might match up “well” with Texas’ defense simply because Texas’ inside linebacker play might open up things in the run game and interior passing game.

What I’ll Be Watching For Early in the Game

  • How does Charlie Brewer’s arm look? Does he still look hobbled? Can Baylor stretch the field if his arm looks better?
  • Can Baylor at least not whiff and make crucical mistakes on the OL? They don’t need the OL to dominate. They just need them to not make terrible mistakes and keep Baylor out of 3rd and long.
  • How effective is Texas’ standard down run game against Baylor’s front? I think Baylor should be able to handle Texas’ run game without allotting too many resources to stop it. But if not it could open the door to Texas scoring 30+.
  • Neither Kansas or West Virginia had QBs who could regularly attack Baylor’s secondary down the field. Texas has had terrible outside WR play this year. Do they try anyway, and are they successful?

Prediction

Like most this year, this game is incredibly difficult to predict due to all of the non-on-the-field circumstances to consider. Baylor went a week without practice. Who knows how many contributors they’ll be missing due to COVID or injuries. Texas is dealing with their own cultural issues and is likely playing under a lame-duck head coach. So this prediction is more of a “most probable outcome” as opposed to “specific prediction.”

I think the Baylor defense keeps Baylor in this game the entire way, but, unfortunately, until I see Brewer get healthy and able to throw the ball effectively, I cannot predict that Baylor will eclipse 20 offensive points in this game (or probably any other this year). If Brewer looks much healthier and his arm looks better, Baylor can get into the 30s this game and has a great chance of winning. If he looks largely the same as he did vs Kansas and West Virginia I doubt Baylor scores more than 14-17 points, even if the OL greatly improves their play. Like all games, turnovers and special teams could be the difference, as a defensive or special teams score could allow Baylor to overcome an anemic offensive performance.

Thus, I’ll take Texas 23 - 17. I hope I’m wrong. I want Baylor to be the final nail in Tom Herma’s Texas coffin. Let’s go Bears!