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Baylor Football 2021 vs 2019: A Tale of Two Seasons

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It was the best of times?

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Baylor Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Backup quarterback in the Big 12 Championship against the best team in Oklahoma, Sugar Bowl bid against an SEC team with a Heisman-caliber quarterback that just couldn’t beat Alabama...Trestan Ebner with five all-purpose touchdowns on the season? It’s hard not to notice the similarities between the 2021 and 2019 Baylor football teams!

As Our Daily Bears begins our bowl coverage, I wanted to reflect on how the 2021 team compares to our previous Sugar Bowl contender, the 2019 team. This will be an in-depth review looking at statistics from Pro Football Focus, Sports Reference, and Football Outsiders. One important caveat — at the time of writing, the 2019 team has played one more game than the 2021 team, so adjust any full-season stats accordingly. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments!

Passing Offense

Passing offense statistics

Statistic 2021 2019
Statistic 2021 2019
Attemps per game 26.8 31.7
Completion percentage 66% 62%
Yards per completion 12.2 12.9
Yards per game 216 255
Touchdowns per game 1.8 1.7
Interceptions 0.5 0.6
Sack Rate 4.9% 8.10%

Statistically, the 2021 passing offense was a lower variance version of the 2019 offense — less risk, but less reward. The 2019 offense threw the ball almost 20% more and gained 6% more yards per completion, but the 2021 offense was more accurate. Both teams had nearly identical touchdowns and interceptions per game, and the starting quarterbacks, Gerry Bohanon and Charlie Brewer, had similar passer grades by PFF (78 vs 76). The most noticeable difference between the two offenses was number of sacks.

The 2019 team was sacked on 8% of passing plays, 65% more than the 2021 team! And in 2019, it didn’t matter whether it was a standard down or passing down, the team was getting sacked 8% of the time they dropped back to pass. In 2021, the offensive line was excellent on standard downs, giving up a sack only 3% of the time, and their sack rate barely crossed 8% on passing downs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - Georgia v Baylor Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are two big explanations for the decrease in sack rate: the improvements of Connor Galvin and Xavier Newman-Johnson, and the change at center from Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen to Buffalo transfer Jacob Gall. Galvin and Newman-Johnson improved their PFF pass blocking ratings from 68 and 58 to 91 and 84, respectively. Gall, in his first year with the Bears, recorded a respectable 78 pass blocking rating, a stark difference to the subpar 40 of his 2019 counterpart.

While it doesn’t show up in the per game averages, there were significant differences in the types of passing plays that the offense ran. The 2021 team called play action more often (45% of passing plays vs 28%), and the 2019 called screens more often (9% of passing plays vs 5%). The two teams also attacked different parts of the field. The 2021 team attempted more deep pass (17% of total attempts vs 13%) and short passes (46% vs 40%), and they targeted receivers in the middle of the field more often (45% vs 40%).

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Despite four of the leading six receivers on the 2019 team playing with the team in 2021 (Tyquan Thornton, RJ Sneed, Josh Fleeks, and Trestan Ebner), the distribution of receptions changed dramatically. The 2021 team utilized running backs and tight ends (and a linebacker, quarterback, and guard) as receivers in the passing game more frequently (35% of targets vs 21% of targets), but they spread the ball around less (the top four receivers had 75% of targets vs 67% of targets).

Neither group of receivers (and running backs, tight ends, etc.) were clearly better than the other. The 2021 team had fewer drops (15 vs 22) and a better contested catch rate (57% vs 49%), but the 2019 team had more yards after catch (5.6 vs 4.5) and graded slightly better on route running by PFF.

Rushing Offense

Rushing offense statistics

Statistic 2021 2019
Statistic 2021 2019
Rushes per game 40.5 36.0
Yards per game 214.9 166.4
Yards per rush 5.3 4.6
Power success rate 72.5% 78.6%
Touchdowns per game 2.2 2.5
Fumbles 0.6 0.8

The 2021 team had a better rushing attack than the 2019 team; they ran the ball 13% more and gained 15% more yards per carry. The 2019 team did have some bright spots, though, as they ran better in power success situations (third/fourth and short) and scored more touchdowns on the ground.

To understand why the 2021 ran the ball better, look no further than the team’s improvement in run blocking. The main rotation of offensive lineman had an average PFF run blocking grade of 77 in 2021 versus 56 in 2019. The higher scores are due to returning players performing better (Khalil Keith jumped up 40 points!) and new contributors (Jacob Gall and Grant Miller) improving upon who they replaced.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big 12 Championship Game - Oklahoma State v Baylor Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Better run blocking wasn’t just limited to offensive lineman — the tight ends and wide receivers also blocked better on running plays. The average PFF grade among tight ends and receivers with at least 100 run blocking snaps was 64 in 2021 versus 60 in 2019. Drew Estrada led both years (among TE/WR with 100 run blocking snaps) with a run blocking grade of 76, and both Thornton (+8) and Sneed (+3) improved from 2019 to 2021.

It goes without saying that the two teams have very different offensive philosophies, and those philosophies led to different run blocking schemes. The main rotation of offensive lineman in 2021 executed a zone blocking scheme on 73% of running plays, while the main rotation in 2019 executed a zone blocking scheme on 48% of running plays.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Baylor at Texas Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The two teams also differed in how they utilized quarterbacks in the run game. 15% of carries for the 2021 team came on non-sack quarterback rushes, while the 2019 team ran their quarterbacks on 29% of carries. QBs accounted for 32% of rushing touchdowns in 2021 and 43% or rushing touchdowns in 2019. Both teams used wide receivers and tight ends for only 3-4% of rushes.

It’s worth noting that not all of the quarterback rushes were on designed run plays. Quarterbacks on the 2019 team scrambled on non-designed runs 44 times. Quarterbacks on the 2021 team? Only 17 times.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 Baylor at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yes, I did write over 300 words on Baylor’s rushing offense without mentioning a single running back! That’s because, statistically, the running backs performed similarly in 2021 and 2019.

The 2021 team relied almost exclusively on two running backs, Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner, and split their reps 60/40. The 2019 team opted for a three-headed attack of JaMycal Hasty, John Lovett, and Ebner and split their reps 40/40/20. The primary backs averaged 5.75 yards per carry in 2021 and 5.82 yards per carry in 2019. 62% of their yards came after contact in 2021 and 58% of their yards came after contact in 2019. The 2021 duo averaged 1.08 touchdowns per game, and the 2019 trio averaged 1.07 touchdowns per game.

Defense

Defensive statistics

Statistic 2021 2019
Statistic 2021 2019
Completion percentage 61% 60%
Passing yards per game 231 218
Passing TDs per game 0.9 1.1
Rushing yards per carry 3.5 3.7
Rushing TDs per game 1.2 1.1
Interceptions per game 1.2 1.2
Fumbles per game 0.6 0.9
Sacks per game 2.5 3.3

The 2019 team was elite at rushing the quarterback. They had 46 sacks in 14 games, good for a sack rate of 9%, and 174 hurries. 13.5 sacks came from James Lynch, and another 11.5 came from fellow defensive linemen James Lockhart and Bravvion Roy. The remainder were mostly attributed to linebackers like Terrel Bernard and Blake Lynch — only 2 sacks came from defensive backs Grayland Arnold and Raleigh Texada.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big 12 Championship Game Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021 team didn’t have nearly as many sacks, 32 in 13 games, but they still registered a respectable sack rate of 7.2% and 142 hurries. There was no singularly dominant force on the line like James Lynch, and the sack leader was a linebacker (Bernard). Defensive backs had twice as many sacks in 2021 than 2019, and Jalen Pitre had 2.5 on his own. This was partly due to scheme changes — linebackers and defensive backs had 90 more “pass rushing snaps” (as defined by PFF) in 2021 than 2019, despite playing one fewer game.

Both the 2021 and 2019 teams were good in run defense, but the 2021 team had a slight edge. They held teams to 3.5 yards per carry, a 0.2 YPC improvement from 2019. The 2021 team was also 4.7 percentage points better on opportunity rate allowed (percentage of carries that gained 4+ yards) and 4.6 percentage points better on power success rate allowed (percentage of runs on third and fourth down with 2 or fewer yards to gain that earned a first down). The 2019 team had a 3.1 percentage point advantage on stuff rate (percentage of carries stopped at or before line of scrimmage).

Oklahoma v Baylor Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

In coverage, the 2021 and 2019 teams performed similarly, but the 2019 team was slightly better. Opposing quarterbacks were held to a 60-61% completion percentage and 0.9-1.1 touchdowns per game, and they threw 1.2 interceptions per game against both teams, but receivers gained 1.7 more yards per catch against the 2021 defense than against the 2019 defense. Perhaps the slower pass rush gave wide receivers more time to get downfield.

PFF rated the 2019 defensive backs better in coverage than the 2021 defensive backs. 2021 Jairon McVea had the highest rating at 88.5, but six of the next seven highest rated backs all came from the 2019 team. Among linebackers with at least 100 snaps, the lowest rated 2019 player in coverage (Blake Lynch) was better than the highest rate 2021 player in coverage (Dillon Doyle).

Special Teams

Special teams statistics

Statistic 2021 2019
Statistic 2021 2019
Field goals 14/20 16/20
Extra points 54/54 57/57
Touchbacks 70/79 42/85
Net punt yards 42.8 38.8
Kickoff yards gained per return 19 17.6
Punt yards gained per return 8.3 9.5
Kick return touchdowns 1 0
Punt return touchdowns 0 1

No comparison is complete without special teams! The 2021 and 2019 special teams each did very well in particular areas. Both teams were perfect on extra points (h/t to Isaiah Hankins, John Mayers, and Noah Rauschenberg), but the 2019 team was slightly more accurate on field goal attempts.

Texas Tech v Baylor Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The 2021 team was generally better at winning the field position battle. Rasuchenberg had 69 touchbacks (Hankins tacked on one more), and Isaac Power improved his net punt yards from 38.9 to 42.8. The 2021 kick return team, lead by Trestan Ebner, had 1.4 more yards per kick return than the 2019 return team, lead by Josh Fleeks. Grayland Arnold and the 2019 team gained 1.2 more punt return yards than Ebner and the 2021 team.

Conclusion

Both the 2021 and 2019 teams exceeded pre-season expectations to compete for a conference championship and be in the playoff conversation. Injuries at quarterback in 2019 ultimately derailed what could have been a Big 12 Championship-winning season, and the team couldn’t get it done against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The 2021 team also had bad injury luck at quarterback to end the year, but they were still able to do what the 2019 team couldn’t and win the program’s third Big 12 Championship. We’ll find out next week whether this team can do one more thing the prior team couldn’t...win Baylor’s first New Year’s Six bowl.