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Monday Thoughts: What We Learned vs West Virginia

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NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor beat WVU pretty good this past Saturday, and West Virginia is not a bad team. Given what I saw in person, learned from listening to Aranda and the players, and then breaking down the game over the past few days, here are my most important lessons from this game that I think matter for the rest of Baylor’s season:

1. Terrel Bernard Looks “Back”

Terrel Bernard, Baylor’s unanimous first team All Big 12 inside linebacker and team leader, is one of the most important pieces to Baylor’s 2021 defense. Coming off of a nasty season-ending shoulder injury in 2020, Bernard was cleared to play in the Spring, but the coaching staff smartly held him out of most contact drills.

Terrel is an all-around good backer, but he has always had two elite traits: 1. His ability to quickly diagnose plays, get around OL, and knife into the backfield on run plays and 2. He is a really good pass rusher, with an all-around ability to get skinny around OL or dominate RBs and TEs left to cover him. Because of his size, he’s always been a guy who, if an OL can get their hands on him, will struggle (this is true of most ILBs—but especially guys like Terrel who play around 220 lbs).

In his first few games of the 2021 season, he just didn’t like “right” to me. Perhaps I’m wrong here and was over-analyzing things, but I don’t think so. It appeared that he was more hesitant, and instead of making a bunch of plays in the backfield he was getting caught up in the trash and struggling to find his way. When I talked to Elliot Coffey—who had the exact same injury as Terrel—on OurDailyPodcast, he said it took him probably 4 or 5 games before he felt the “same” again. I asked Terrel about this after the WVU game, and he said it wasn’t really a factor for him because “once you get out there you’re not really thinking about it” but he did say that it took him some time to get his feel right.

So after a difficult start to this season, he suffered a meniscus injury against Iowa State and had to miss the Oklahoma State game and Baylor really struggled to replace him. Getting Terrel healthy and right was a big key to Baylor’s defense improving this year.

Well, good news. At least in this one game, Terrel looked like he was back to his old 2020 self. Most notably he didn’t look hesitant, he was trusting his eyes, triggering on run action, and making plays in backfield. He also had a vintage Terrel-style sack where he looped around the edge, dominated a RB, and swung the QB down.

Seeing him make these plays again made me much higher on Baylor’s defense going forward. Baylor needs Terrel to be a dynamite pass rusher to ensure that teams can’t overplay Pitre. If Terrel continues to look like his old self, Baylor’s defense could take that leap from “pretty good” to “very, very good.”

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2. Gerry Bohanon Continues to Show that he is the Real Deal

Look, I’ve been sounding the “Gerry is very, very good” alarm since game 1. It was clear, even against a bad Texas State. Not only was it clear that he was playing well earlier, but also that he does things which translate against good opponents. However, it’s always good to have more data. 6 games in and we can be very confident that Gerry is a very, very good QB, and one of the top 3 in conference (along with Skylar Thompson and the new OU QB, Caleb Williams). I’ve talked about him ad nauseum, but he continues to show that he’s calm, has great pocket presence, has a great deep ball and arm, and is a dynamite team leader. He continues to protect the ball, having thrown 0 interceptions this season and has only thrown a handful of risky/interceptable balls.

Some of y’all reading this might reflexively be saying, “What about his performance against OSU? The offense was terrible!” To that I’d say go give that game a rewatch and chart out all his snaps. Of Baylor’s 20-odd passing plays, he probably was “not good” on 5 or 6 of them. A great game? No. But a pretty good game for a 1st year starting in his first difficult environment. With that experience under his belt he’ll hopefully play better in tough environments going forward, but the bad OSU offensive performance was not squarely on his shoulders.

Coming into this season, I felt pretty good about Baylor’s roster overall and their ability to compete in near every Big 12 game, but I just didn’t feel comfortable predicting too many wins with such an unknown at QB. It is so, so hard to win consistently without good QB play. Baylor has more than good QB play, they are getting great QB play. It’s possible for things to go downhill from here, but after 6 games I feel very comfortable in saying Gerry is good enough for Baylor to win the conference.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

3. The Offensive Staff Showed Their Mettle

This off-season, fans all learned what “wide zone” is. It’s Baylor’s base run scheme, and the entire offense revolves around it. Despite this, I pointed out that Jeff Grimes, Baylor’s offensive coordinator, clearly showed at BYU that if you stack the box on early downs to stop the run, he will hit you over the top every time.

When Baylor played Oklahoma State, OSU’s defense stacked the box on nearly every standard down. Baylor did attack downfield, but they struggled in their pass protection which made it difficult to feel comfortable continually attacking downfield. Going into halftime, Aranda said to the on-field reporter that they needed to attack downfield. They did in the second half to mixed success, but it was clearly the answer to what OSU was presenting defensively. Overall, with so few plays ran in that game, it was difficult to get too much of a story of what happened. But clearly Baylor didn’t execute on their base plays, and they probably could’ve started attacking downfield earlier in the game.

West Virginia’s defensive front presented many of the same issues as Oklahoma State’s. They’re aggressive, get a lot of backfield penetration, and lead the conference in tackles for loss. Furthermore, West Virginia tried to get their safeties involved in the run game the same way that OSU did.

Baylor’s answer to WVU was clear: prevent their front from flowing too hard against WZ (they constrained the backside with sweeps and speed option), and throw the ball a lot. Gerry has a great arm and can threaten the entire field, so using him to stretch the defense horizontally and then bomb them over the top is a great plan. You can tell that they practiced their max protect schemes a lot this past week, the OL + RBs + TEs gave Gerry a great pocket to work with on play action. It worked to perfection against WVU; Baylor had big pass plays on nearly every possession.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tyquan Thornton Showed That Teams Must Respect His Speed

It was a huge day for the veteran Baylor receiver. There really isn’t a DB in conference who can comfortably hang with him deep. This is something most Baylor fans know, and something that opposing teams will have in their scouting reports, but it’s just as important to actually put it on film to alter their gameplans. Against OSU, Thornton roasted their best CB several times but they were only able to connect one time. Getting another huge play to Thornton in this one was great for film.

Furthermore, his ability to win on some other non-deep routes (such as his out route in the endzone) were big as well. I don’t think Baylor has a truly dominant Denzel Mims-like WR on the roster this year, but they do have a few guys with some clear strengths to operate around. Thornton showed his ability to hit big plays this past week. Once teams start leaving a safety back to handle him, it’ll open things up for RJ Sneed to do work over the middle.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

5. The Defensive Line Has Become the Strength of the Defense

I talked a lot about defensive line play this offseason, because it was a huge flexion point for the team. Baylor survived with a patchwork, COVID/injury-ridden unit last year which limited their defense to just “surprisingly good.” For Baylor’s 2021 defense to become great, the DL had to step up.

Adding Siaki Ika, the transfer nose tackle from LSU, was obviously a huge boon and he is really rounding into form with 2 sacks against WVU. More importantly, he is improving in how he handles double teams which leaves 1v1 opportunities for Baylor’s other defenders. He’s strong as an ox, plays with great hands, and learning how to use his body.

Other guys are playing very well, too. Notably, Gabe Hall and Cole Maxwell (the two starting defensive ends) are REALLY playing well. Maxwell has played well all year, he’s an effective run defender because of his long arms, strong base, and tremendous technique. He’s surprisingly athletic, too, and has been a valuable piece as a secondary run defender, by which I mean plays where the ball is away from him, but he gets off his block and gets involved in the tackle. Gabe Hall is a guy who has struggled with injuries in his career but looks to be rounding into form. He was one of Baylor’s best defenders against Oklahoma State and WVU. Compared to Maxwell, he’s more of a penetrator using great quickness despite being 6-5 300 lbs. Earlier in the year he struggled with consistency and wasn’t playing with great technique, but he’s been playing the run much better, stacking and shedding the opposing OL. He has long arms and wrecked a couple of WVU’s drives this past game nearly by himself (he tipped the ball on Pitre’s interception).

Finally, after being unavailable at the start of the season due to injury, Garmon Randolph has stepped in at JACK LB and shown himself to be a valuable piece. He’s huge and a good natural pass rusher and is improving in his ability to play the run.

By season’s end, I think all of Baylor’s starting DL—Hall, Ika, Maxwell, Randolph—could all be playing at least honorable mention all-conference level, with a couple of them making the 1st or 2nd team. Baylor’s pass rush is much, much better now than it was even against Iowa State just a few weeks ago. This showed against WVU where they had 6 sacks and nearly every time WVU tried to take a deep shot, the pocket collapsed before Doege had time.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

6. Pass Defense is Probably Baylor’s Biggest Question Going Forward

Coming into the season, I thought Kalon “Boogie” Barnes needed to step up his game to maximize the defense’s potential. Baylor prefers to leave one of their corners alone on an island so the safety on his side can help on the other side of the field, and Barnes was Baylor’s best bet to fill this role. Raleigh Texada is a known quantity at CB but he just isn’t that “leave him by himself” guy—he’s a bail-technique zone corner who plays with a lot of savvy (and has become a good blitzer).

Barnes could still become this lock down guy, but he’s been injured the past few weeks so that’s up in the air. Without him or anyone else on the roster stepping up and becoming a lockdown guy, Baylor’s pass defense is probably the weak link of the defense. They’re not bad, but they have some room to grow no doubt. It will be very interesting to see how Baylor does against teams who can really throw the ball downfield, they haven’t played anyone who can do that yet. First test there probably comes against Texas (I haven’t watched BYU yet but I doubt that’s their game).

What were your biggest takeaways?