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Baylor’s Defense Will Respond Against Oklahoma

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Aranda’s Defensive Bonafides Are Incontrovertible

Baylor football head coach Dave Aranda isn’t just a “defensive guy,” he’s one of the premier defensive minds in all of the sport—I’m talking high school, college, NFL. Everyone who knows ball has known this for at least 5 years.

The mark of a great coordinator is that they can craft a good or great unit no matter the pieces they are working with. That’s exactly what he has done. Going all the way back to his first FBS defensive coordinator job at Hawaii in 2010, Aranda’s defenses have always performed better than the talent would indicate. Here are a few examples:

  • In 2012 at Utah State, he inherited a defense which the previous year had ranked in the 80s or 90s in most defensive metrics. In his first year he brought them up to the 20s and 30s.
  • In his three years at Wisconsin from 2013-2015, his defenses always were in the top 20 nationally, and his final year he produced a top 5 unit. Wisconsin does not have top 5 talent.
  • In his four years at LSU he certainly had a smorgasbord of talent to work with, but he still got the most out of them, finishing in the top 15 every year with a couple of top 5 defenses.

Put it simply, Dave Aranda knows how to coach a defense. Even in his tumultuous first year at Baylor, Baylor was dealing with a rash of COVID and injuries which left the DL bare, had a ton of new starters, and on top of that he was installing a brand new scheme which was much different than the one he inherited. And yet he and Roberts still managed to get a top 30-40sish unit, which is pretty incredible all things considered.

But of course, Aranda isn’t just a defensive coordinator anymore. He’s the head man. And as he has talked a lot about during his time at Baylor, as such you can’t zero in on any one aspect of the organization — you have to be in charge and/or delegating about everything.

Baylor’s Defensive Performance Against TCU Was Historically Bad For Aranda

As talked about above, Aranda was a defensive coordinator for a decade before he became a head coach. And while he isn’t Baylor’s DC, this defense undoubtedly has his fingerprints all over it. Remember, defensive coordinator Ron Roberts was an early mentor for Aranda and they operate their defenses with very similar principles. Thus, as the above tweet says, this was a historically bad performance for an Aranda defense. And it Morris and TCU were able to do it against a Baylor defense that pretty uniformly grades out as a top 20 FBS defense this year. Baylor hadn’t given up 30 points all year, and they ended up giving it up against a backup QB for a team whose coach was just fired. It was a no bueno performance.

It Was A Weird Confluence of Circumstances

There were some confounding factors for Baylor’s performance in this game. For one, even if Baylor’s staff gameplanned for the possibility that TCU would just come out and let it rip every down and forget about the run game, it is one thing to plan for it and another to see it in person. This was the first opponent all year that simply said “screw it, we’re gonna spread you out and throw it every down.” It’s weird that in the Big 12 this style came as a shock, but nobody really does this anymore so it was a totally new experience for this Baylor defense.

The biggest way this threw Baylor’s defense off is how they play their defensive line. Baylor has become a notoriously good run-stopping unit this year and it’s because their defensive front has become dominant run stoppers with technique and strength. On standard downs, the DL plays “run to pass,” which means their primary goal is to attack the OL and get leverage, and once they see it is a pass they transition to a pass rush. This is a tradeoff—it makes your pass rush worse but makes your run D more stout. So when TCU decided to eschew the run game, it made Baylor’s defensive line technique that they’ve been using all year suboptimal.

Now, once it became clear that they weren’t going to run, Baylor’s front did start to pass rush right off the snap on many downs, but this is where other issues reared their head. First, their pass rush levels were off. It is vital, especially against a QB who is a really good scrambler like Morris is, that you attack the pocket in a collective manner. You can’t have everyone speed rush off the edge and leave nobody up the middle. You have to try to uniformly collapse the pocket and maintain gap integrity to ensure that the QB has nowhere to go if he tries to scramble. Easier said than done.

Second, even when defenders did get to the QB, they weren’t able to get him on the ground. Tackling was a big problem against TCU. On at least two major situations, Baylor had guys running free at the QB and simply missed him.

This can’t happen. I’m sure that sound tackling will be an emphasis this week during practice. Especially against guys like Caleb Williams and Kennedy Brooks who are tremendously powerful and elusive.

Great Coaches Don’t Let You Beat Them The Same Way Twice

The thing about people at the top of their game is that they usually don’t let you beat them the same way twice. When Oklahoma State shut down Baylor’s offense earlier this year, West Virginia tried to trot out the same plan the next game and Baylor throttled them. Against TCU, Baylor’s primarily problem was multifaceted but revolved around the inability to stop TCU’s passing game. Normally defenses relish the opportunity to attack an offense that has foregone the run game and decided to pass it every down. But TCU simply spread Baylor out, made Baylor’s pressures predictable, and picked apart Baylor’s secondary when Baylor couldn’t affect the QB.

If Oklahoma tries to replicate TCU’s gamplan—coming out in spread sets and just throwing the ball on >80% of plays—I don’t think it will go nearly as well as it did for TCU. The coaches know what went wrong against TCU and will be working all week to correct it. This doesn’t mean that Oklahoma won’t have success against Baylor’s defense, I just highly doubt it’s the same way that TCU did. Aranda and his staff are too good to let that happen again.

Evidence for this is how clearly Aranda has identified the problem. For us football nerds, Aranda is such a gem in press conferences. He doesn’t just proffer platitudes, but instead precisely talks about the issues and doesn’t dumb things down (too much) for the general audience. A lot of his answers are great launching points to learn about stuff you may not know.

Anyway, Aranda was asked in the postgame after TCU what the main problem was defensively and he primarily talked about pass rush. Now with the benefit of watching the film, he was again asked about it during his weekly press conference and he spent 3 minutes talking about the main issues. He broke it down as follows:

First, he talked about how the defensive backs need to get better at staying attentive and “plastering” the receivers during scramble drill and as the play extends. This isn’t something they’re just going to talk about, but they’re addressing in practice this week by altering their practice structure. He said they’re gonna take some time away from what would-be individual drills and put guys in competitive situations where they faltered against TCU. A lot of “sticking with it” defensively in scramble drill is purely about want-to and competitiveness. This is something they’re working on this week.

Second, he discussed how they’ve had issues with guys blitzing and not staying within themselves as they get in the backfield. When you blitz, you can’t just go hell on wheels after the QB. It’s really, really hard to tackle someone that sees you coming when you’re running full speed. You have to stay under control, as much as you want to get into the backfield as quickly as possible. Guys like Jalen Pitre have been awesome blitzing, but have also had instances where they’ve gotten outside of themselves and tried to do too much. Defense is all about playing as a team, and guys need to play with more control when rushing the QB.

Finally, he got even more technical and talked about pass rush lanes from the defensive line. On pass rush, rushers have two primary decisions: whether they attack upfield by trying to get around the OL’s outside shoulder, or whether they try to cross the OL’s face and beat him inside. You can’t have everyone rushing in the same manner on the same play. If too many guys attack outside, you very well might get pressure but then the QB can step up into the parted sea and just run up the middle. If too many guys cross the OL’s face and go interior, it makes it easy for the QB to spill outside. This is why on almost every sack, you see a guy win outside which forces the QB to step up into a pocket that is collapsing inside. Rushing the QB requires team defense.

All of these things, Aranda mentioned, have been problems all year that have been allowed to fester in large part because they’ve been winning but also because they hadn’t yet faced a team who just threw the ball nearly every down. The issue is too big to ignore now, and the staff and players will undoubtedly be much better at this against Oklahoma.

What This Means Against Oklahoma

Implementing these changes in one week of practices A) doesn’t guarantee they will be fixed and B) means you aren’t practicing other stuff. The major way that college football (and college sports in general) differs from professional play is the lack of practice time. Teams simply can’t be great at everything, there just isn’t enough time to hone everything you want. You have to pick and choose. When Rhule first arrived at Baylor, he knew they’d struggle offensively and defensively in their first year so they allocated a disproportionate amount of time to special teams in practice. That showed on gamedays, both the good and bad. Anytime you choose to do one thing, you are effectively choosing to not do something else.

Oklahoma’s offense is awesome. Caleb Williams’ ability to throw bombs downfield accurately while on the move is a major concern this week. He’s gonna make some special plays, that’s a guarantee. But if Baylor can improve on the fundamentals so that Oklahoma and Williams can’t do this every drive, that will go a long way towards giving themselves a good chance to win this Saturday.