Before I get started here, let me say that in writing this post, I'm going to try to stay away from the more obvious points like how I'm pretty sure Corey Coleman now legally owns McLane Stadium and can charge rent to Baylor every time it wants to play there. I'm also not going to call for anyone's job or rejoice that it seems they already lost it, though I will address what appears, based on my Twitter mentions, to be the elephant in the room on defense.
The bottom line from tonight, put up here to spare you in case you don't want to read: we've got a lot of work to do over the next two weeks before we play Rice.
1. The Seth Russell Passing Experience.
For better or worse, we basically got the whole kit and caboodle tonight from Seth Russell as a passer. There were several outstanding plays, like basically all of the touchdowns to Coleman and the bullet on third down that Jay Lee dropped. There were also several really bad ones, like 2 of the 3 interceptions and a fourth pass that probably should have been intercepted. His completion percentage went up from the previous game, but so did his interceptions, as I said. He was the consummate gunslinger, and as anyone who watched Brett Favre or Dr. Bo Wallace (two extremely different exemplars of the genre) will tell you, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
The last two years, Baylor fans have watched this offense be orchestrated by a quarterback in Bryce Petty who at once possessed a blend of amazing physical tools (as a passer) and seemingly suffered frequent crises of confidence. Bryce's risk aversion was in some ways a tremendous asset, since he rarely turned the ball over, as well as a liability, since when the windows got smaller in conference play or bowl games, he was less willing to test them.
From the standpoint of managing risk, one of the most critical aspects of quarterback play, our past and present QBs could not be less alike. Where Bryce would rarely throw into double coverage or high over the middle, Seth seems (at least through 3 starts in his career, mind you), much more willing. In fact, I don't think there's a single pass that Seth Russell doesn't believe Seth Russell can make at any time. Like I said above, sometimes that's going to be fantastic, when the risk pays off and we break off a big play, but sometimes it won't. Tonight, we saw both.
I'm confident that with Briles' continued tutelage and more experience, we'll see Seth find his way into a happy medium between ultra-conservative and crazy-reckless, mostly because he has to if he wants this offense to be successful against the better defenses on our schedule. I'm also confident that any thoughts of a brewing QB battle between Seth and Jarrett Stidham are extremely premature, mostly because despite his garbage-time drives the last two games, Stidham isn't ready for prime time just yet.
2. I'm a Little Worried about the Running Game.
If you looked solely at the box score and then read that heading, you'd probably think I was crazy. After all, we had three different backs run for 120 yards or more en route to 412 total rushing yards on 56 carries. But those stats don't tell the whole story, particularly in the first half.
I'll have to actually watch the broadcast of the game to be sure, but it seemed like Lamar stymied our rushing offense, which averaged just 4.5 yards per carry in the first half vs. 7.4 for the entire game, largely the same way West Virginia did a year ago. They played a nose guard straight over center Kyle Fuller, taking advantage of his relative weakness one-on-one to try to keep us from going straight up the middle as we love to do. It was only after we wore them down considerably in the second half that those runs started busting further and further and the yardage piled up.
As much as I hate to say it, I don't know how to fix this particular problem (if indeed it exists). The only thing I can think of is that we probably need to run more true zone read with Seth, something our coaches don't seem very excited about doing to this point, to challenge defenses on the edge. Until we do, they're going to continue loading the middle with linemen and linebackers, and our rushing offense will suffer early before we wear them down (assuming that's even possible against teams that aren't SMU or Lamar).
One thing that gives me hope that this situation can improve over the course of the season? Our depth. I've been extremely impressed so far with both Johnny Jefferson and Terence Williams, and assuming Devin Chafin comes back healthy in two weeks after going out today with a pulled hamstring (cross your fingers!), I think we may have the best group of RBs so far in the Briles era.
3. The Defense Wasn't as Bad as You Probably Think.
I said above in the context of our rushing offense that if all you looked at was the box score, you didn't get the whole story of the game. That's equally, or perhaps more, true with respect to the defense.
If you looked solely at the box score, you'd see that Lamar, an FCS team, scored 31 points against us at home. That's not good. What you wouldn't see is that 17 of the 24 points given up by our first-team defense (with some backups rotating through, obviously) came on drives of 36 (touchdown), 19 (touchdown), and -2 (field goal) yards following turnovers. For the entire game, Lamar really only had two sustained drives, and one of those came in garbage time after we'd pulled our starters.
On the whole, Baylor's defense gave up 340 total yards on 73 plays for an average of 4.65 yards per play. When the starters left, that average was actually just under 4 yards per play. For the sake of comparison, Texas gave up 4.8125 per play tonight to Rice.
That being said, this was the second game in a row where we started things off completely unable to handle the zone read or a running QB. Sure, we eventually adjusted, but that doesn't bode well at all for future games against Rice's Driphus Jackson, Tech's Pat Mahomes, or TCU's Trevone Boykin, to name three. And given that we'd just seen Matt Davis run all over us the week before, it's also completely inexcusable. After that game, everybody and their dog knew that mobile QBs could give us fits, and we still went into this game without a good plan for dealing with it.*
*This is, to me, the best argument anyone can make for wanting Phil Bennett fired. But while I'm on the subject, let me say that while I understand the frustration that causes someone to demand he be replaced (believe me, I do), I don't see how anyone thinks that would help us at all right now. You'd just be replacing him with someone currently working for him that is likely going to do the same sorts of things. And now you'd be down a position coach as that guy transitions into a larger role. That doesn't strike me as a positive step.
4. Our Special Teams Are an Abomination
I actually thought of about fifteen different descriptive nouns that could fit into that sentence, all of which seemed to lack something I couldn't quite put my finger on.
When Art Briles took the job here in 2007, ODB didn't exist, and most of my Baylor message board time was spent on BaylorFans, where we experienced a sudden influx of Houston Cougar fans willing to tell us about our new coach. To a man, they basically said three things: 1) your offense is going to be awesome, 2) your defense will be, at best, passable, and 3) your special teams are going to suck. Recognizing the obvious truth of the first statement and that the jury may still be out on the second, the third has now been proven true over and over again. And I'm tired of it.
Tonight, we saw one of our starting kickoff returners replaced after consecutive bad decisions, a third kick that was muffed in the endzone and thankfully went out before any damage was done, and enough double-clutches on punt returns to make Vin Diesel's character in The Fast and the Furious wet himself.*
*Side note: I drove a stick shift for more than a decade, and I still don't know what the criticism "Granny shifting, not double-clutching like you should." even means in the context of racing cars. Is it one of those things in movies that doesn't really have a meaning?
After tonight, if you told me that we just don't practice special teams at all during the week, I wouldn't challenge you. It's the only reason I can think of that we're consistently offsides on kickoff coverage and make so many poor decision on when to bring the ball out on kickoff returns. We seem to be decent enough at covering punts, but that may well be due to the fact that our punter is a freshman and hasn't had time to forget everything he learned in high school.
5. The Aftermath of another Wild Saturday in College Football
Today was another crazy day, what with Jacksonville State taking Auburn to overtime in Auburn after inexplicably running out the clock rather than trying to win the game in regulation, Toledo beating Arkansas in Arkansas, OU storming back from down 14 in the fourth quarter to beat Tennessee in double overtime, Notre Dame surviving Virginia, Texas beating Rice by 28 despite being outgained by nearly 200 yards ... I could go on.
After all that, you should probably prepare yourself for the eventuality that we're going to drop a spot in tomorrow's AP Poll, because that's happening after Michigan State beat Oregon and probably would have regardless the outcome of our game. In fact, I'll go ahead and project now how I think the AP Top 10 goes when it comes out tomorrow (which is actually now today), with this week's results in parenthesis:
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (38-0 W vs. Hawaii)
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (37-10 W vs. Middle Tennessee)
3. TCU Horned Frogs (70-7 W vs. SFA)
4. Michigan State Spartans (31-28 W vs. #7 Oregon)
5. Baylor Bears (66-31 W vs. Lamar)
6. USC Trojans (59-9 W vs. Idaho)
7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (34-27 W vs. Virginia)
8. Auburn Tigers (27-20 W vs. Jacksonville State)
And then the other two spots will be filled from among Georgia, Florida State, Clemson, UCLA, and maybe Oregon if they're not punished too much for losing to a really good MSU team.