When I got the email from Baylor about a potential trip to BYU for last night’s game about six weeks ago, my wife and I jumped on it almost immediately. We had been considering coming out here on our own, but after finding out that Baylor would plan and set up the whole thing for us (for a price, of course!), we decided to pull the trigger and use it as our 15th anniversary present to each other. We had never been on a Baylor-run trip of any kind before and didn’t really know what to expect. What we got was more than we could have imagined.
I’m going to split this post up into three main parts, each of which could probably be its own post. The first part will focus on the trip itself, and I want to be clear that I have not received any financial or other compensation for anything I’m about to say. The second will be about BYU, its fans, the stadium, and the in-game experience, which was awesome. Finally, we’ll talk about the game itself.
The Provo Trip
From my discussions with Baylor and Bear Foundation folks on the trip, this was apparently a trial balloon/experiment of sorts for a Baylor-run experience and something they have wanted to do for a while. We left on Friday morning from Waco Regional on a charter flight packed with Baylor fans, having driven down from Dallas that morning (which made for a long day for us and our nearly 9-month old). As I said above, we’ve never been on a Baylor-run trip before, so we were flying pretty blind on what to expect.
Simply put, Baylor and the Bear Foundation did a wonderful job putting this trip together from start to finish. The hotel in Salt Lake City—the Grand America—was amazing, as was the event Friday night with former Baylor point guard Jared Butler (currently with the Utah Jazz) and AD Mack Rhoades. Butler spoke at length about why he chose Baylor, his experience there and how Scott Drew’s culture differed from others, and his experiences in the NBA thus far. I had never heard him speak like that before, about personal issues that were clearly near and dear to him, including the camaraderie of the team in the bubble of the 2021 NCAA Tournament and how he’s still looking for that at the NBA level. He was impressive, to say the least.
Before that, in the afternoon, we had a campus and stadium tour at BYU, where the people could not have been more excited to have us visiting. This was something I expected from my interactions on Twitter with their fanbase, but that I was not really prepared for until I got there and experienced it in person. Imagine an entire fanbase/school of Ted Lassos, and you get somewhere close. We’ll talk more about that below. Also, the chocolate milk was outstanding.
My take on the whole thing is that the entire trip was a complete success, and I hope Baylor agrees, and this spawns more similar trips in the future. It was unbelievable to spend basically 48 hours straight around some of the most passionate Baylor (and BYU!) fans you will ever meet, including quite a few that spoke glowingly about the blog here at ODB, our podcast (shoutout to Peter and crew!), and the impact we’ve had in 11 years in existence. I am more excited about our fanbase today than I was when I left, and I was already pretty excited. I can’t wait for the next one and kinda wish it was Morgantown, if only so we could experience a very different environment in a lot of respects!
BYU, Its Fans, and the LaVell Edwards Stadium Experience
Let’s get something out of the way—BYU and its fans are just different, and I mean that positively. From the first time I floated the idea on Twitter that we might try to go to this game, the response from BYU fans was, frankly, overwhelming. That was before I ever set foot in the State of Utah. They only got more intense from there. But let’s start with the stadium for those that couldn’t really get a good view of it from the broadcast.
LaVell Edwards Stadium is a nearly 60-year-old stadium built into the side of a hill that shows its age in many respects. To put it in Baylor terms, it is basically a larger (~64,000 seats) Floyd Casey, a four-sided concrete bowl of mostly bleachers where you are close with your neighbors. During the tour on Friday, we found out that BYU has been pumping money into new recruiting and donor areas that they opened for the first time last night, and the tour guide (an associate AD) shared openly that it was largely in response to their trip last to McLane last year when they found out how behind they were. I can’t fault them for being impressed by our home.
It was also the second-loudest stadium I’ve ever been to as a visitor at a college football game behind only Kyle Field. BYU fans are extremely loud, extremely passionate, and extremely disciplined. I would put them ahead of the Aggies in that regard, actually .When BYU is on offense, they are virtually silent—almost eerily so—until something positive happens. When BYU is on defense, they are nearly deafening. They know their chants and cheers, respond to on-field and PA instructions, and, as you could tell from the procedure penalties, definitely impacted the game. The student sections, which are located primarily in the southern and eastern sections of the stadium—so more-or-less directly across from the visitor section in the northwest corner—were losing their minds for basically the entire time.
It helps that BYU had probably the best in-stadium experience for any game I’ve ever attended, including a ton of things that people might find somewhat cheesy like giveaways and games but that kept fans—particularly the students, to whom most of it was geared—engaged. I know I saw people talking on Twitter about their fourth quarter intro, which had the Cougar atop a stand in the middle of the field with a giant drum surrounded by people twirling fire, as impressive. But I also saw people talking a lot about community Cougar Tails and the Moon, so take that for what it’s worth. All in all, BYU fans show up, wear a single, unified color (blue) that looks good in the stadium, follow directions well, are loud and rowdy, but are also extremely nice.
And that’s where I’ll end this section—I’ve never met a fanbase like this before, and there’s nothing like it in the current Big 12. They were just so nice, and it might have been weird if it didn’t feel genuine, but it did. When we walked up to the stadium, our team buses were unloading on the north side. Baylor and BYU fans alike stood and cheered for our team as we unloaded. You couldn’t have told them apart. Because our band didn’t make the trip, BYU’s band played Old Fight for us, something they apparently do for every visiting team that doesn’t bring their band. After that they gave us free ice cream, a quick way to almost anyone’s heart. And on the way out, after they had won and stormed the field, multiple BYU fans said some version of “I’m really sorry that you guys didn’t pull it out” despite it being THEIR team that had just won the game! Like I said, it would have been weird if it was fake, but I don’t think it was. They’re just nice people, and maybe the ultimate example of that came before the game, when a group of BYU fans sought me out at the Baylor Alumni tailgate and gave me a BU necklace with my name engraved on it and a personalized sign for my 9-month-old that will hang in his room. BNT also got one during the game, as did President Livingstone at the tailgate. Would any other fanbase give handmade gifts to visitors?
The Game Itself
With all that feel-goodness out of the way, let’s talk about the game itself, which was decidedly less than fantastic. Actually, though the defense played well, I might go so far as to call this the most disheartening offensive display since the 2019 OSU game that caused a complete shakeup of our offensive staff and Charlie Brewer’s transfer.
Now, I want to be clear that I am not calling for or suggesting anything similar to that. It was one game against a quality opponent on the road in a crazy atmosphere. You are never as bad (or as good) as you think you might be in the moment. But I will say that I do not understand our entire offensive philosophy last night. We supposedly chose Shapen over Bohanon because of his ability to throw the ball down the field and our desire to be more explosive in the passing game, yet I’m not sure we even attempted a pass over 20 yards against a defense that was running single high most of the night. Instead, we ran the ball fifty-two (52!) times against seven, eight, and nine-man boxes, averaging just 3.0 yards. After we tied the game at 20 in the fourth quarter, Baylor ran twenty-two (22) plays the rest of the game (not including the end-of-game kneel), of which eighteen (18) were runs. That includes the final drive of the game, where we ran the ball six (6) times to get first and goal at the five and then twice more in self-destructing into a fourth and goal from the 11 that Shapen threw out the back of the endzone.
To say I am mystified by how we performed on offense is an understatement, and I can only think of two rational explanations: 1) we believed we could lean on them with our OL the way we did last year, and couldn’t, or 2) we do not actually trust Blake Shapen to throw the ball. I don’t know which would be worse, but I’m leaning toward the latter since the former could still be fixable over the course of the season as the OL gels, and the RBs get more comfortable in the scheme and their roles. I do know that the WR fears have proven legitimate, as after Baldwin left the game in the second quarter (I believe), we had no one capable of getting any real separation. That could be a big part of it, too, particularly if Shapen is fearful of throwing into tight windows and possibly turning the ball over. The red flags in pass protection from the Albany game also proved legitimate, as BYU had 4 sacks in he game, all of which killed drives.
The bright spot in the game was, of course, the defense, which did an admirable job of limiting BYU and its future NFL QB in Jaren Hall. As bad as we were running the ball despite our extreme commitment to the concept, BYU was worse, averaging just 2.5 yards/carry on 33 attempts. BYU made a concerted effort to spread us wide and get the ball out quickly, which, combined with Hall’s mobility, limited our pass rush, but the defensive line basically made Hall play an extraordinary game to beat them. That he did is not a reflection on them, and the only drive that really upset me was the one to end the first half. I’m not sure if it was evident on the broadcast, but I continue to believe that BYU was not actually concerned with scoring when that drive started. They were content to go into halftime down 6-3. Then, two or three soft coverages and big plays later, they had momentum and a legitimate chance that Hall exploited with a NFL-caliber throw. Instead of coming back out with the chance to make it a 2-score game after the half, we went in down 4. That was bad.
So, too, were the penalties, of which we had 14 for 117 yards in the game. Of that number, four (4) were false starts, and three (3) were offensive holdings. In this game, those were basically drive killers, although two of the false starts happened on the final drive in overtime after we got to the 5. The only good explanation for these uncharacteristic problems is that we found the “storm” that Aranda referenced all week but maybe kinda made it for ourselves. This is not uncommon in young teams traveling to difficult environments to play solid opponents. But that doesn’t make it fun to watch.
All that being said, to paraphrase Aranda from the post-game presser, all experiences are learning experiences, and I believe Baylor will be better for having lost this game now than if we had done so later. There are still questions that need to be answered—What’s wrong with Shapen? What’s going on with the right side of the OL? How do we keep other teams from going 4/5-wide and picking on Doyle in coverage? Who is going to step up at WR?—and we may get positive signs on some of those issues against Texas State this week. It is true that all of our program’s likely-achievable goals—winning the Big 12, making another NY6 bowl, possibly getting into the Playoff (with significant improvement)—are as achievable now as they were before, and I am excited for the future of this program.
Thank you to everyone at Baylor and the Bear Foundation for this weekend’s trip, and I hope to see everyone at McLane on Saturday!