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After A Disastrous Performance Against TCU, Baylor Looks to Rebound at Iowa State

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The result against TCU this past Saturday cannot be described as anything other than one of the worst performances Baylor has put out in the past 10 years. Can they get things moving in the right direction this week?

Baylor v Iowa State Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

Sometimes You Have to Call a Spade a Spade

Baylor’s first 2.5 quarters against TCU was not a slow start, it wasn’t things not clicking, and it wasn’t not ideal; quite frankly, it was the worst extended period of play that Baylor has put forth in probably 10+ years. I did not follow Baylor or college football during the years that shall not be named, but people who did assure me that this was as bad as it was then.

Baylor’s first half success rate (a measure of general offensive efficiency) was 9%. For comparison’s sake, FBS average is usually in the low 40s. In the vast majority of games between comparable opponents, both teams will hover in the 30-50% range. I’ve only seen rates less than 10% in single quarters, never in an entire half.

Furthermore, as you can see above, Baylor’s EPA (Expected Points Added) per play in the 1st half was nearly -0.7. Quite literally, that means that every time Baylor ran a play in the first half it subtracted -0.7 points for their expected total (for those confused, as one naturally would be, you obviously can’t score negative points. But what this means is that Baylor was effectively adding nearly 1 point to TCU’s point total on every offensive play).

Nothing was working in the first 2.5 quarters. The offensive design continues to ask Charlie to read the defense too much (Rhule and Nixon stopped asking Brewer to read the field in 2019), Brewer airmailed guys when they did get open, and Baylor couldn’t get anything going in the running game against TCU’s hyper aggressive defensive style. I, and seemingly many others around me at the game, were flabbergasted that Aranda did not at least give another QB a chance after the 10 of the first 11 drives of the game went absolutely nowhere.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Things did pick up on Baylor’s final few drives. Brewer made a couple of really good plays—in particular a dynamite 25 yarder to Holmes on a deep over route and great escape and toss to Ebner down the sideline—but overall was still OK at best. I charted every throw in his last four drives, and they looked like this: (Ratings: 0 = uncatchable, 1 = inaccurate, 2 = fine/good, 3 = perfect).

Surely, that result over the final 3 drives cannot make up for the abysmal play of the first 11 or 12. The main source of offensive firepower came from redshirt freshman RB Craig Williams, who demonstrated some terrific toughness in the hole to go along with his breakaway speed:

But in the end, it was too little too late. Baylor needed every single thing going right for them the remainder of the game. They didn’t, Baylor failed to convert on a critical 4th down despite having a guy wide open, and Baylor took the extremely frustrating and disappointing loss.

Going into the game, most of us predicted an ugly, low scoring game where the offense would struggle against a pretty good TCU defense. What surprised us all was the seeming lack of energy the team came out with and did not generate until nearly the 4th quarter. Regardless of talent, desire, energy, and toughness are things you can watch for to see the general psyche of the team.

While the 2017 Baylor team lacked depth and experience, they always played til the final whistle and were mostly always bought in. Baylor has dealt with their own host of issues this year, but such a cratering performance for the majority of the game against TCU was worrying. Aranda deserves time to get things going, but for the remainder of the season many fans’ attention will shift from the W-L record—which seems largely forfeit at this point—to the overall direction of the program. It would be prudent to not overreact to anything that happens in this bizarre season, particularly 4 games in, but that does not excuse anything and everything.

On to Iowa State

Iowa State has been well, very Iowa State this year. Over the past several seasons, it seems that they give both their detractors and believers different opportunities to say “I told you so!” After a rather embarrassing and amplified opening loss to Louisiana at home, they turned around and promptly beat both TCU and Oklahoma on the road. After a narrow loss on the road to Oklahoma State, they got their yearly feel-good performance against Kansas and now have their sights on Baylor at home.

Iowa State is led by QB Brock Purdy who has been surprisingly terrible this year. Usually one of the top 5 quarterbacks on most draft boards, this season has really hurt his draft stock. The biggest difference seems to be that he only has one threat on the outside with junior college newcomer WR Xavier Hutchinson, so teams can heavily focus on stopping their very good tight end Charlie Kolar. They’ve resorted to playing a lot of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends), but their OL isn’t good enough to consistently punish people.

Their running back Breece Hall, however, is very good. Just a true sophomore, he is one of the few big time recruits that Matt Campbell has attracted to Iowa State and he is already paying dividends (Baylor really lucked out that he hadn’t cracked the rotation yet when they played them last year). He has an incredibly strong lower half to shrug off defenders within the first 5-7 yards of the line of scrimmage and then is adept at making the final defender miss before he hits the jets (and he has more than enough speed).

Philosophically, Iowa State will use him in ways similar to how Oklahoma State uses Chuba Hubbard; i.e., they will hand him the ball 20-25 times knowing that most of the plays will only be marginally successful but on a select few he will absolutely make you pay.

Despite being limited with their OL and WR play (and QB play for a lot of this year), Iowa State still ranks decently high in most advanced metrics on offense because of Charlie Kolar, Breece Hall, and being in year 5 of Matt Campbell, so their identity and culture has been firmly established.

It is on defense where Iowa State has always provided a challenge over the past few years. They are pretty good yet again, currently ranking 30th in FEI (TCU is 20th, for comparison). They are widely considered the progenitors (at least at the P5 level) of the modern 3-high-safety structure which has done nothing but explode in popularity since they introduced it in 2016. The basic principles are 3 down lineman whose jobs are largely to “occupy” the offensive lineman and prevent them from reaching the linebackers and safeties, some big and versatile linebackers who play significant roles in the pass rush, pass defense, and screen game, and finally a “middle safety” who sits flat footed about 8-10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

https://www.bringonthecats.com/2019-kansas-state-football/2019/11/29/20988447/kansas-state-football-enter-the-3-3-5

That third safety is the key to the whole shabang—he makes it hard to identify what coverage they are in pre-snap (because basically every pre-snap look looks the same with 3 high safeties), and he is very difficult to account for in the run game because he attacks the line of scrimmage with a lot of speed which is near impossible for 300lb offensive lineman to pick up regularly. This is the position that Chris Miller played so expertly for Baylor in 2019.

Iowa State is less talented in the secondary than they have been, but their front 6 boasts a lot of talent and experience. Will McDonald is a very talented young edge rusher who has been a big problem for teams on passing downs. He’s flanked by Jaquan Bailey, a senior who has been a solid pass rusher and all-around player for several years now.

The linebacker trio of O’Rien Vance (a big inside backer who specializes as a pass rusher), Mike Rose (their space backer akin to Blake Lynch for 2019 Baylor, he is big but has good athleticism and flattens field screens), and Jake Hummel (first time starter as a redshirt senior) are steady as they come.

Overall, their defensive structure is designed to feign you into the running the ball and then sit back in drop 8 coverages on passing downs and force you to check the ball down. They don’t allow many big plays but will allow you to move the ball on a down-to-down basis. They are a very tough defense to crack if you do not have a QB who can push the ball down the field. If you cannot threaten them down field, their safeties can play very aggressively against all of the shorter route combinations and can fly downhill against the run. This is why you saw Rhule launch the ball down the field against them, you have to make them respect the deep ball.

So What Can Baylor Do

Considering what happened last week, I’m not going to go as much in depth in the preview this week (my wife said this would probably be a good week to cool off, this stuff can take up a lot of my time!). 95% of what I’ll care about seeing this week is a team that is engaged, physical, and looks excited to be playing.

As will be the case for the rest of the season, Baylor has the defense to keep them in it against pretty much everyone else remaining on their schedule. Purdy has been very inconsistent and is probably good for an interception or two this game. But as I’ve said in every preview thus far, until I see any signs of life in the Baylor offense, I have no reason to expect that they will score more than ~21 offensive points. Craig Williams was a huge spark towards the end of the last game, I expect they will lean on him some more and see what he can do over a full game.

If they’re going to continue to insist on playing Brewer irrespective of on field results they need to simplify the offense for him. They’re currently asking him to make too many reads, which he has never shown the ability to do at Baylor. Nobody likes to say that a QB “can’t read defenses,” but there is a reason the vast majority of college offenses don’t ask their QB to do so: it is very difficult.

I don’t think that simplifying the offense is the magic potion for Baylor’s offense (the offense was very simple yet ineffective late in 2019), but it will prevent performances as disastrous as we saw vs TCU. If Baylor simplifies the offense (or finally gives someone else an opportunity at QB) and comes out fully engaged, they could make things very competitive against a good Iowa State team.

This is an important test for Aranda. His team just delivered one of the worst performances in recent memory—against an in-state rival at home, no less—but managed to find some juice late in the game. He and his staff have to find a way to carry that over and have things look more positive for the remainder of the season. Fans can swallow losses and most should expect many more this season; they cannot withstand any more TCU-like performances. Here’s to a much better performance at Iowa State!