In the last decade, Baylor has been among the most successful programs in college football—at least on the field. The Bears finished in the top 15 in the AP poll in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015, and reached as high as No. 8 as 2016.
At the same time as the investigation regarding the program’s institutional problem with sexual assault unfolded, Baylor began to struggle on the gridiron. Entering into the 2018 season, the Bears came out victorious in just two of their previous 19 contests.
On Saturday, Duke will take on Baylor in Waco, Texas, 364 days after the two played in what was one of the more bizarre games for the Blue Devils in recent memory. In Duke’s 34-20 triumph, all six offensive touchdowns were from more than 30 yards, and these breakaway plays accounted for a whopping 51 percent of the game’s total offense. The Blue Devils’ defense, which allowed Zach Smith to complete just 35.3 percent of his passes, were led by now-captain Joe Giles-Harris, who had one of the best games of his career. The linebacker tallied 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and an interception.
Despite their recent performance, the Bears seems to be rejuvenated this season, as they have dominated their first two opponents in Abilene Christian and Texas-San Antonio.
“[Baylor] is more confident. They’re playing harder. The conditional level of the team is better, as they’ve had a full conditioning cycle,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They look quicker and more fit—they chase the ball on defense and play to the whistle on offense. What [head coach Matt Rhule] has been known for is having a hard-nosed well coached team.”
Rhule has employed a two-quarterback system in Baylor’s first two games, with sophomore Charlie Brewer and senior Jalan McClendon splitting reps. Brewer, who led the team in passing attempts a year ago, has taken the majority of snaps thus far, but each have been highly effective, as they have combined for 678 yards and five touchdowns through the air, on an efficient 65.8 completion percentage.
The duo of quarterbacks have a plethora of weapons at skill positions at their disposal, including Denzel Mims, whose 1,111 receiving yards and eight touchdowns propelled him to a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection. Joining Mims at wide receiver is Jalen Hurd, a former five-star running back recruit for Tennessee. Rhule is also utilizing a committee approach at running back, as John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty are sharing work again this season. The pair have absolutely dominated in their first two contests, compiling 341 total yards and seven touchdowns.
“They’re really athletic and fast. We have to be on our Ps and Qs and do what we have to do on the back end as linebackers communication-wise,” Giles-Harris said. "They try to do a lot of run-pass options, so we need to be on our keys and play smart and aggressive. When you start sitting back because you think somebody may outrun you that’s when bad things start to happen and you do get outrun.”
Defensively, the outlook is not as promising for Baylor. After allowing 35.9 points per game in 2017, good enough for No. 114 in the nation, the unit has again looked shoddy this fall. Abilene Christian, an FCS team, burned the Bears for 220 yards on the ground two weeks ago. For reference, the Wildcats gained just eight rushing yards against the last FBS opponent they faced. However, Baylor has been stellar in creating pressure beyond the line, as they have 13 tackles for loss and five sacks in its first two contests.
The Bears may be able to create headaches for Duke quarterback Quentin Harris, who was sacked twice in his 15 snaps against Northwestern. Harris will be called upon to start his first collegiate game, as the Blue Devils’ first-string quarterback Daniel Jones underwent surgery on his left clavicle last Sunday.
Whether Duke can advance to 3-0 or not hinges upon the first-time starter’s ability to be serviceable. The Blue Devils' tandem of running backs, Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson, will be heavily leaned upon, especially after Brown and the graduated Shaun Wilson combined for 332 total yards and three touchdowns in last year's matchup against Baylor. Although Harris has frequently been cited as a run-first player, especially considering he has just 15 career passing attempts in comparison to 39 rushes, he has potential to succeed in the pocket.
"He has a really accurate arm, and can throw a deep ball as well as anybody I've ever been around," Cutcliffe said.
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Following Saturday's contest, the Blue Devils will return to Durham to host crosstown-rival N.C. Central Sept. 22.