Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
07 Nov 2013
In 2004, Baylor installed a giant tarp declaring "This Is Bear Country" behind the south end zone in Floyd Casey Stadium, less as a means of marking its territory than of covering up a swath of inevitably empty seats. At that point, the Bears were laughingstocks of the Big 12, a decade from their last bowl game or winning record. Nearly a decade later, the tarp has become such a looming, omnipresent symbol of the program's depths that its sudden absence this week, to accommodate a rare sellout crowd against Oklahoma, has been greeted as a kind of purge. Coach Art Briles bragged on TV that his team was "going tarpless." Quarterback Bryce Petty recommended burning it. Following his lead, locals began selling #BurnTheTarp t-shirts. The tarp is old Baylor, perennially languishing at the bottom of the conference standings. The new Baylor packs the house.
Certainly there's no more tangible sign of the magnitude of tonight's game. Even the universally acknowledged brilliance of RGIII couldn't vanquish the tarp. But this team has. Since dropping a 42-34 decision at Oklahoma last November, the Bears have won eleven in a row by an average margin of 36 points, including a 52-24 ambush over then-No. 1 Kansas State to kick off the run. They come into tonight as double-digit favorites, boasting their highest ranking in the major polls (5th) since 1953. But no would-be contender has ever had more to prove. Of Baylor's first seven victims, only Buffalo comes into this weekend with a winning record. Among the rest, only Kansas State is currently sitting at .500, and the Wildcats gave the Bears their only remotely competitive game to date.
So it is Baylor takes the stage as simultaneously the most fun team, the most improbable frontrunner and the greatest question mark in college football. The stakes are as high as they've ever been in Waco, and a win over brand-name heavyweight will only raise the bar. If it's not the biggest game in school history, it only falls short in anticipation of what might come next.
Baylor's numbers on offense are so outrageous – seriously, this team is averaging 64 points and 717 yards per game, most of it on less than three quarters' worth of real effort – that the outlier in the Bears' path of destruction can actually tell us more than the scorched earth all around it. On October 12, Kansas State managed to hold Baylor to 35 points on 446 yards in Manhattan, a perfectly good yield for most offenses (especially in a 10-point road win over the defending conference champs), but nowhere near the devastation levied in Baylor's other six games. How did the Wildcats do it? The way they've always done it, by playing the role of tortoise against the hare.
The most glaring number in that game was 58: K-State controlled the tempo so thoroughly that the Bears were limited to just 58 offensive snaps, 25 below their season average, in less than 21 minutes' worth of time of possession. But that's also an example of how thoroughly the Wildcats controlled the line of scrimmage, on both sides. Offensively, the Wildcats chewed up 330 yards on 5.8 per carry, the best effort against Baylor's defense, by far. Defensively, they allowed 114 yards on 3.1 per carry, the best effort against Baylor's offense, by far. For skeptics, that's hard evidence that quality opponents (or even mediocre ones) can still shove the Bears around at the point of attack. For Oklahoma, it's an encouraging template that the offense is in good position to exploit. After years of high-volume, up-tempo passing attacks, the Sooners have taken on a much more physical M.O. this year, grinding out well over 200 yards rushing in wins over West Virginia, Notre Dame, TCU and Texas Tech. Between Blake "Belldozer" Bell and a three-deep tailback rotation, there are more than enough bodies to sustain a physical, ball-control approach as long as the score allows it.
But just how long can the defense hold up its end of the bargain? So far, OU is vastly improved over last year's collapse down the stretch, thanks in part to a more spread-friendly, 3-3-5 scheme, and in part to a schedule full of mediocre quarterbacks who have presented little threat as runners or passers. Art Briles' attack is a different animal, capable of attacking any area of the field from any area of the field. It generates big plays at an alarming rate: Through seven games, the Bears have significantly more 30-yard plays from scrimmage (43) than Oregon has in eight games (35) or Texas A&M has in nine (32). The quarterback, Bryce Petty, is on pace to obliterate FBS records for pass efficiency and yards per attempt; his top two receivers, Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese, rank second and third nationally in yards per catch. The offense as a whole is the only attack that ranks in the top ten in both passing and rushing. When K-State loaded up against the run, Goodley and Reese went long for three touchdowns covering 93, 72 and 54 yards.
Et cetera: If I kept going, we could be here until well after kickoff. (I haven't even mentioned Lache Seastrunk, the best big-play back in the country when it's his turn with the ball.) Once you start rattling off the superlatives, it's hard to stop, until you run into the asterisk at the end: Yeah, but who have they played? Compelling as these numbers are against any compeition, it's a valid question. And finally, one that's about to get a well-deserved answer.
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MATT: Baylor 47, Oklahoma 35
F/+ : Baylor 45, Oklahoma 27
Because of the offense, and the pace, and the overall gestalt of the program over the past five years, Oregon still carries the reputation of a team that knows its way around a shootout – which may be true, when it comes down to that. It's just that it so rarely has: Since 2009, when Chip Kelly was promoted to head coach, the Ducks have allowed 35 points in a game just eight times. (Through eight games this year, only one opponent has cracked 30, and only then because Washington State decided to leave its starting quarterback in a blowout to pad the stats against Oregon's backups. Of the 16 touchdowns the defense has allowed altogether, seven have come with the Ducks already enjoying a 20-point cushion.) Meanwhile, when scoring 35 points itself in that span, Oregon is 50–2.
So you may as well forget outscoring them, especially if you're Stanford and your own offense operates on such vastly different terms. On the contrary: Beating the Ducks means stopping them offensively, starting at the line of scrimmage.
Besides the six losses on that list, Oregon has only dropped one other game in the last five years, a bona fide, 51–42 shootout at Stanford in 2009. (Obviously, that Cardinal team was built very differently than the current edition.) Otherwise, the opponents that gave the Ducks the most trouble under Kelly all looked the same: Besides the fact that all six played in BCS games – the losses to Auburn and Ohio State came in big-money bowls – all six also featured deep, athletic defensive fronts anchored by future draft picks, and all but USC in 2011 succeeded in dragging Oregon into a relatively low-scoring slugfest. (The final score of the LSU loss suggests a borderline shootout when it was anything but: Most of the Tigers' points came as a direct result of four Oregon turnovers – extremely uncharacteristic for Oregon, even in defeat – and the Ducks added a couple of late, cosmetic touchdowns that helped blur the offense's struggles against another blue-chip front seven.) As it proved last year, Stanford fits this mold to a tee. Of the 17 defenders who recorded at least one tackle against Oregon in 2012, eleven will be in the lineup again on Thursday night, including future pros Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley at linebacker, Ed Reynolds at safety and Henry Anderson on the line, who's returning from injury just in time to replace another injured headliner, Ben Gardner. Like last year, the Cardinal lead the Pac-12 in rushing defense, sacks per game and tackles for loss.
Unlike last year, they'll be facing one of the most polished quarterbacks in the nation in Marcus Mariota, the only regular starter in the FBS who has yet to throw an interception this season. Dangerous as he was athletically, as a redshirt freshman Mariota was still fairly raw as a passer in 2012, and never succeeded in forcing Stanford to respect his arm when the ground game was bottled up. Although he delivered the only real big play of the night by either offense, a 77-yard scramble in the first half, Mariota couldn't keep the sticks moving on third down, and his efficiency rating in that game (107.3) remains the worst of his career.
As a sophomore, though, not only is he taking better care of the ball: He's also torching run-oriented secondaries by getting it downfield on a regular basis. Through eight games, Mariota has already connected on 29 passes covering at least 25 yards, up from 19 in all of 2012, on significantly fewer attempts. He leads the Pac-12 in yards per attempt; his top two receivers, Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, are averaging 17.3 yards per catch with 13 touchdowns between them. (Go ahead and add a healthy De'Anthony Thomas to that mix, as well, for the first time since September.) Under Kelly, Oregon always struggled to overcome diminishing returns on the ground, in part because he never had a quarterback who could consistently keep secondaries on their heels. But Mariota has grown into that role, equally adept as a spread-option runner and a pro-style passer, and Mark Helfrich has shown no hesitation to exploit him on both fronts.
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MATT: Oregon 36, Stanford 17
F/+ : Stanford 27, Oregon 22
Seventh Day Adventure will preview the rest of the weekend in college football on Friday afternoon.
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