WACO, Texas — If you thought UB football went through some lean times over the last decade consider the plight of the Baylor Bears.
Between 2002 and 2009 Baylor produced no winning football seasons, or one fewer than UB, which only returned to Division I in 1999. In that span the Bears endured four 1-7 Big 12 Conference records, or one more than the Bulls suffered through in the Mid-American Conference. UB went to a bowl game. Baylor did not.
It’s easy to forget the depths from which Baylor ascended as it meets up with UB at 3:30 today in Floyd Casey Stadium. The Bears enter ranked 23rd in the AP Poll and third in the nation in scoring. They celebrated the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Robert Griffin III. They’ve made three straight bowl appearances for the first time in school history. But perhaps most symbolic of how the program’s grown is the $260 million on-campus riverfront stadium that will open next year. Nothing rebrands an athletic program like success.
Times have changed in Waco and credit Art Briles with spurring the renaissance. Briles took over as head coach in 2008 following a productive stint at Houston. He installed a high-tempo offense that would be built around speedy skill players. And to run it he brought in RG3, perhaps the most dynamic Baylor football player since 1980 grad Mike Singletary.
Griffin’s exploits made Baylor football relevant again, but Briles’ system is why it has sustained. The Bears lit up the scoreboard again last season under RGIII’s successor, Nick Florence. They’re off to a sizzling start this season under fourth-year junior Bryce Petty. They have a running back to die for in junior transfer Lache Seastrunk (“I wish he’d stayed at Oregon,” said UB coach Jeff Quinn). And they have more quality receivers than Stereo Advantage.
“They have a great system and we’re going to have to be very, very much locked in defensively to keep them from putting up the kind of yards and points that they’ve been proven to be able to accomplish,” Quinn said.
UB created a semi-stir with last week’s performance at No. 2 Ohio State. Down by 23-0 in the first quarter, the Bulls outscored the Buckeyes, 20-17, the rest of the way and had a recovered fumble deep in Ohio State territory negated by penalty. Linebacker Khalil Mack sparked a national buzz with a whirlwind effort that included an interception returned for a touchdown.
The final three quarters at Ohio State fuel feelings that the Bulls might have what it takes to knock off the Bears, 27-point favorites.
For that to happen they’ll have to withstand game-time temperatures in the mid-90s and field temperatures expected to approach 120. They’ll have to win the turnover battle with a Baylor team that has turned seven of its last eight opponents over at least twice. And they’ll need a re-emergence of a running game that piled up the yards last season but ran into a wall against the Buckeyes.
Branden “Bo” Oliver managed just 73 yards on 26 carries and seemed to run tentatively behind a line that managed little push but pass protected well. The Bulls failed to score in a first-and-goal situation from the 3.
“Obviously it’s upsetting that we couldn’t punch that in from the 2 or 3 yard line, whatever it was,” senior guard Jasen Carlson said. “But I have faith in our offensive line and our running backs and our play calling that if we get in that situation again, we’re definitely going to end up punching it in. It makes everyone on the offensive line sick that we couldn’t get that in.”
“We’d like to clean that up a little bit,” Quinn said of UB’s stymied running game. “We need more out of that aspect of our offense.
“Now, Bo plays as hard as anybody. He got some tough first downs and some tough yards, but we weren’t as explosive of an offense, and that because of our run game. We need to do a better job.”
Even if the running game shifts gears this is a tall task – the second of consecutive season-opening road games against a ranked opponent, this one against a team with 16 40-point-plus games in its last 20. The UB offense will have to fire. Quarterback Joe Licata must tap the same poise and patience he showed against the Buckeyes.
But given Baylor’s explosiveness, calm and patience might not be easy to come by. As Quinn noted this week with a sentence that ideally identifies the challenge, “Don’t know much about their special teams, their punter, because they don’t punt much.”