Let’s kick this off with our inaugural “He Got That Bear In Him” Player of the Game Award, the recipient of which you can probably guess:
RB Richard Reese: 19 carries for 156 yards, 3 TDs, and 8.2 yards/carry. Reese also had one reception for 17 yards.
Congratulations to Richard Reese, a true freshman from Bellville, TX that committed to Baylor in May 2021, signed about six months later, and enrolled in June 2022. He now leads the team in rushing yards with 237, TDs with 5, and, among players with more than 50 yards rushing, average per carry at 7.0.
If you are looking at Baylor at 2-1, 0-0 in conference on the season and still puzzled a bit at what this team might actually be this season, know that you are not alone (which is not fantastic with 25% of your season complete, if we’re being honest). It was an uneven sort of non-conference made worse by the fact that we learned almost nothing from the Albany game, which may end up being a net-negative despite also being a 69-10 win. We had questions going into that game that did not get answered, more questions after that game that arose from the performance therein, and almost certainly would have preferred playing someone with a pulse. Blame Louisiana Tech for deciding they’d rather lose to Missouri by four touchdowns, instead.
Breaking these three games down into basic themes yields the following: against Albany, we were trying not to show anything meaningful to BYU while also getting Blake Shapen confidence in his third-ever start and avoiding injury; against BYU, we were trying to survive in a very difficult environment and pull out a win however possible; and against Texas State, we were trying to figure out what we had. Thus, we fed the ball to the guy listed as our third-string RB coming into the season to see if someone not named Taye or Sqwirl could carry the offense, threw passes to eleven (11) different receivers, including five (5) to Seth Jones, and rotated so much on defense that twenty eight (28) different defensive players registered a stat of some kind, including twenty five (25) with solo or assisted tackles. Our leading tackler in the game, Al Walcott, had just nine (9). Part of that rotation is probably due to the heat, part due to the fact that we were missing two starters on defense (Dillon Doyle for the first half, Cole Maxwell for the entire game) as well as three on offense (Monaray Baldwin, Ben Sims, and Taye McWilliam), but it was also clearly the plan.
So the question is: did the plan work? Did we learn anything from this game? Yes, absolutely. On offense we learned that we have something in Reese that should only get better from here on. He may not be the biggest (that’s Qualan Jones or Taye, depending on whether you prefer height or weight), or the fastest (Sqwirl), or the best in pass protection (probably Taye), but he has great patience and vision, The line, which had a pretty rough game against Albany before facing what we thought was a pretty stout BYU defense (more on that later), played considerably better against Texas State (no sacks allowed, just 3 tackles for loss allowed, and just 4 yards lost on 37 rushing attempts for 293 yards). The results were somewhat mixed, but Baylor made a concerted effort to run behind Gavin Byers and the right side of the line, which has been a major weak spot to date. Despite the officials’ best efforts to contain him, Seth Jones stepped up with several big catches, as did Javon Gipson. The stats may not be as eye-popping as in years past, but we are going to need one (or more) of those guys to step up in conference play, so this was the time to try. And the rumors of the coaches losing confidence in Blake Shapen look worse than ever after some of the play calls Saturday, including the throw to Jones on the sideline that you absolutely do not call from that part of the field if you have any doubt at all about your QB, since an underthrow or miss could easily become a pick-six. It’s understandable why they keep rolling Shapen out—it clears his vision and cuts the field in half, making his reads easier—but he’s actually better when he stays in the pocket and has time to spread the ball around.
On defense the situation is, frankly, a little murkier. The performance in the second half, after Doyle came back and Baylor started to tighten the screws on the underneath stuff, was heartening. After halftime Texas State had the ball eight (8) times, including the drive at the very end of the game, and gained 118 yards on 38 plays. That’s 14.75 yards/drive and 3.1 yards/play. The pass rush, which has been somewhat anemic so far mostly due to teams spreading us out and getting the ball away quickly, ended with 2 sacks (I thought it was 3), 8 tackles for loss, and 2 huge pass break-ups by Siaki Ika that ended a Texas State drive almost by themselves. TJ Franklin had a particularly good gameStill, we had major, uncharacteristic issues in tackling—it seemed like we had a Texas State player dead to rights a dozen times and just ... missed—our zone coverage is charitably described as a work-in-progress, and Ashton Hawkins ate us alive with 13 catches for 114 yards even though we knew he was their only real weapon. I will say that we should have expected Layne Hatcher to throw the ball well and confidently given his history and experience—he had 32 career games played and 70 career TDs coming into Saturday, which is approximately 26 more games and 62 more TDs than Shapen.
My big issue at this point is that, absent the return of a particularly dynamic player or the discovery of something by the coaching staff, I am not a believer in “flipping the switch” and suddenly improving significantly. Stated differently, progress is incremental, and though you may be a much better team by the end of the season than you were when it began—I will go to my grave thinking that happened in 2017, win/loss be damned—you can’t expect it to happen over the course of one or even a few weeks. And Baylor needs to get a lot better if we hope to finish the season in Big 12 contention, especially with our road schedule going to Oklahoma and Texas later in the season, not to mention Iowa State this week and West Virginia just under a month from now. I’ve seen people—including those I trust that know far more about football than I do—saying that we can still get where we want to go, the team is relatively young in key places (and thus likely to improve with experience), and our coaching staff will get it figured out. If anything they probably deserve that trust given what they have accomplished thus far. But I will admit that I have more concerns today than I thought I would, and I’m not sure I would include us among the Big 12 favorites at this point, not with the way we’ve played to date. I hope I’m wrong.
Speaking of the Big 12, here’s how I would rank the tiers at this point with non-conference play concluded for everyone except Kansas and West Virginia:
A—Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The advanced stats and rankings seem to agree that these two teams are the top of the Big 12 so far.
B—Texas and Baylor. It looked for a little while like UTSA might pull off the upset in Austin, and Texas’s defense took a step back from the first three quarters against Alabama. Still, that offense is dangerous with Bijan Robinson and Xavier Worthy and will only get better when Ewers returns from injury. I am probably being a little homerish putting Baylor up this high given everything I said above, so if you wanted to split this into two, I wouldn’t quarrel with you about it.
C—Kansas State, Iowa State, and Kansas. I would have had Kansas State a tier higher before they spit the bit against Tulane this week. Iowa State has continuity at the coaching staff but replaced a lot coming into this season and is 3-0 with wins over SEMO, Iowa (gross), and Ohio. I am a believer in the Kansas offense, generally, and Jalon Daniels, specifically.
D—Texas Tech, TCU, and West Virginia. Texas Tech fans seem oddly upset after a game they lost to a team by 13 to a top-20 team where the spread was 10.5. NC State is #19 in SP+. That’s not a bad loss. TCU has only played 2 games so far, and West Virginia lost two (including to Kansas) before firing their coach and beating the pants off Towson.
We’re about to turn the page on the Texas State game and prepare for Iowa State, but I’m curious to hear what everyone else thinks, too!