Saying that Baylor has struggled through its first two games is an understatement.
The Bears were unable to beat a team in the FCS, and it is scary to imagine what will happen when they begin to face elite competition in their conference.
Baylor enters its matchup against the Blue Devils searching for an identity and all-around consistency from its players. After beginning the season with a 48-45 loss against FCS opponent Liberty—in which the Bears defense allowed 585 total yards—Baylor was shut down offensively by a low-level FBS opponent in Texas-San Antonio Saturday, when it was held to just 274 total yards in a 17-10 defeat.
Prior to their loss to Liberty in the season-opener, the Bears had not been defeated by an FCS team since they fell to Lamar 18-17 in 1981.
Regardless of the early-season losses, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe still feels Baylor will be a threat against the Blue Devils.
“I think of the three teams we’ve played to this point, Baylor will be the fastest and most talented team we’ve played,” Cutcliffe said. “That football team is playing a lot of young people, a lot of athletic people, and they are going to come together because they’re doing every little thing right. Our people I think understand that because we’ve watched tape of them.”
The Bears’ inability to win games is not a new phenomenon following the firing of head coach Art Briles in May 2016 amid a widespread sexual assault scandal. Baylor lost its last six regular-season contests in a row a year ago, collapsing after a perfect 6-0 start to the campaign.
In order for the Bears to restore order, they will need their offense to get back on track. Baylor finished sixth in the FBS last season with 523 total offensive yards per contest, and its 34.6 points per game allowed the Bears to have some success despite sporting a dismal defensive unit that allowed 434 yards per game—good for just 83rd in the nation.
Baylor will change things up at the quarterback position ahead of this weekend’s matchup. Sophomore Zach Smith will take the reins Saturday while graduate transfer Anu Solomon undergoes concussion protocol following a hit suffered in the loss to Texas-San Antonio.
“[Smith] has got a big arm, and they’ve got a lot of people open consistently,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a guy that is accurate, highly-touted and a pro-style type quarterback. He has good pocket movement, he’s big and he’s got great vision down field. So, he’s a type of quarterback that we’ll have to deal with quite often.”
Smith started the Bears’ final five contests last season and found success, averaging 313.5 passing yards and completing more than 62 percent of his attempts. One cause for concern, however, is Smith’s seven interceptions during that span. Baylor’s inability to maintain control of the ball was likely a cause of the Bears’ 1-4 record in Smith’s starts.
The importance of taking control of the ball is magnified when a defense is unable to rise to the occasion and get stops to make up for offensive mistakes. The Bears’ dismal defensive unit lost five of its top six tacklers from last year—the only returner is senior Taylor Young, who has 13 tackles through two games—and will continue to give a large share of its minutes to freshmen trying to find their footing at the collegiate level.
This matchup against Duke will test young Baylor cornerbacks Harrison Hand and Blake Lynch. The two defensive backs have combined to start just three career games for the Bears and will face much steeper competition against a Blue Devil team that has gained 293 yards per contest through the air this season. Yet, which Duke receivers get targeted the most will be determined by the ability of these inexperienced cornerbacks to compete.
“You look at any coverage that you might see, and someone should have an opportunity to be open,” Cutcliffe said. “Depending on the coverage they’re playing, there are different primaries. A lot of people say there’s a primary here, here, here and here regardless of coverage. Ours doesn’t. We’ve always taught concepts, and if you learn concepts, you know where to go with the ball.”
Baylor played 15 freshmen in its first two contests, a total that ranks fifth in the nation. The Blue Devils will look to use the experience of its offensive unit in order to get by Baylor Saturday and advance to 3-0 for just the second time since 1994.
Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.