You know you've got a good team when, in the process of discussing how teams can slow you down, the best examples are games in which you scored 35 and 41 points and gained 446 and 459 yards.
When you're averaging 61 points and 684 yards per game, we have to start somewhere. And without the Kansas State and Oklahoma games, Baylor's averages jump to 68 points and 750 yards per game. The Wildcats and Sooners are the only teams keeping Baylor's per-game averages in Earth's atmosphere.
Regardless of semi-gaudy totals, both Kansas State and Oklahoma succeeded in slowing down Art Briles' attack for at least a little while. What can we learn about these defenses' relative successes? And how can it apply to Oklahoma State's defensive game plan when the Bears and Cowboys face off in Stillwater on Saturday night?
First, it bears mentioning that these two teams have the two most highly rated defenses Baylor has faced; in terms of Def. F/+, Oklahoma ranks 33rd and KSU ranks 39th. Baylor hasn't played any truly elite defenses. Oklahoma State's (13th in Def. F/+) is easily the best on the docket so far.
To explore the answer further, however, let's consult some game-charting data.
Should you form an umbrella?
In 12 possessions against Kansas State, Baylor punted six times and lost a fumble. In fact, nearly half of Baylor's yards came on three plays, all long touchdown passes. The Bears were inefficient as a whole, and KSU was able to slow the run game down far more than anybody had to that point in the season.
The first step for Kansas State: cutting off outside running opportunities. According to our charting data, Baylor attempted 24 zone-read run plays, the bread-and-butter of Baylor's (and many others') spread rushing attacks. Eighteen of those rushes ended up going up the middle, where the landscape is most cluttered with defenders. Those 18 runs gained just 72 yards, 4.0 per carry. (And for that matter, the six that went off end or tackle gained only 13 yards. KSU had this schemed out incredibly well.) For the game, Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin combined to gain 129 yards on 28 carries, a 4.6-per-carry average far below their season averages. And this was against a defense that ranks just 79th in Rushing S&P+.
Of course, what is charted as "zone read" isn't always simply a keep-or-handoff option for the quarterback. Here's a good example of a nearly perfect possession against the Baylor offense. KSU was able to read and react with precision, but that meant more than simply having a a disciplined defensive end. In some cases, it meant playing tight coverage on the outside to prevent the success of packaged plays like the one on first down below.
On first down, KSU clogged the middle, had an outside linebacker ready to pursue Petty on a keeper, and had a cornerback playing tight to prevent an easy pitch-and-catch to the wideout. On second down, quick reaction and pursuit led to a short gain on a quick screen. On third down, a threatening end forced Petty to give to Glasco Martin, who was stuffed for no gain.
Of course, a Petty keeper moved the chains on fourth down. Keeping an offense like this under 10 yards in three plays is hard; doing it in four plays is even harder.
In this game, KSU did something that requires a monk's level of patience: the Wildcats never blitzed. In 23 pass attempts (21 passes, two sacks), KSU rushed four defenders 22 times and rushed three defenders once. Blitzes trigger automatic reads in so many offensive systems, and Baylor is really, really good with the automatic read-and-react situations. Kansas State made quarterback Bryce Petty survey a field congested with seven pass defenders.
While Baylor survived this, Petty did complete just 57 percent of his passes. He was 8-for-11 on passes thrown nine or fewer yards from the line of scrimmage and 4-for-10 on longer passes. What bailed Baylor out, of course, is that three longer passes -- two to Tevin Reese, now injured, and one to Antwan Goodley -- connected for 79 yards through the air and 140 yards after catch. Kansas State was sturdy and disciplined but suffered three breakdowns, and Baylor is good enough to take full advantage of every breakdown.
In general, however, KSU's general plan seemed to be to spread out like an umbrella, filter runs toward the middle of the field, and, on passes, force Bryce Petty to marinate in the pocket for longer than he wants. It almost worked. KSU took a 25-21 lead into the fourth quarter before a 54-yard pass to Reese gave Baylor the lead and a late interception Ahmad Dixon set up the game-clinching score. The game very well could have gone KSU's way.
(This game, by the way, was the first clear sign that Kansas State might be figuring things out. In 2011-12, the Wildcats were close-game masters, but with a new quarterback and a raw defensive two-deep, they lost four games by 10 points or less in the season's first six games. But their advanced-stat rankings were still top-40 level, and since the loss to Baylor, the Wildcats have played at almost a top-20 level, TCU near-miss notwithstanding. KSU currently ranks 24th in F/+, ahead of teams like Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Miami, and this Saturday's opponent, Oklahoma.)
Or should you attack?
Oklahoma was first more successful, then less successful than Kansas State overall. In an enormous Thursday night contest on November 7, the Sooners slowed Baylor's offense down to a crawl for the game's first quarter and a half. In the Bears' first five possessions, they gained just 64 yards in 30 plays (2.1 per play), 28 of which came on one pass to Clay Fuller. Of course, they then gained 386 yards in their next 42 plays (9.2). But what were the Sooners doing early that was so effective?
Like KSU, Oklahoma seemed intent on forcing Baylor to run up the middle. We've seen Lache Seastrunk split the middle of a defense for long touchdowns, getting to the second level quickly enough to ruin every linebacker's or safety's angles for catching him, but both OU and KSU decided the risk of that happening was still smaller than the risk of getting burned for a long gain to the corner. More than half of Baylor's early zone reads went to the up-the-middle option, which of course means that Petty was reading a defender prepared to cut off outside angles.
Either OU changed strategies or lost discipline later in the game. In for the injured Seastrunk, Shock Linwood eventually found zone-read success off end and tackle, gaining 81 yards in nine such carries after those first five possessions.
Against the pass, OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops took far more chances than Kansas State. In these first five possessions, Petty attempted 12 passes; Oklahoma rushed five defenders five times and a sixth once. The blitzes worked. Petty was sacked three times in these six blitz attempts, twice by an unblocked defender, and his three passes all fell incomplete, one thrown away and two overthrown. Against four pass rushers, meanwhile, he was 3-for-6 for 39 yards.
Oklahoma got somewhere with pressure, but it only worked for so long. Oklahoma blitzed nine more times after that early dry spell, and while Petty was hit once while throwing, he completed five of nine passes for 72 yards. For the game, blitzing was still worth it -- that's 15 blitzes, 60 yards (4.0 per play) -- but eventually Baylor's run game clicked well enough to avoid must-pass situations, and Petty got just comfortable enough against the pressure to start moving the ball.
The Oklahoma State plan
Over the summer at Football Study Hall, Ian Boyd asked, "How the hell do you stop Baylor?"
Teams that want to bring outside defensive backs on blitzes or disguise which players will be covering the slot receivers have tremendous difficulty doing so when the receivers are so far away from the offensive line. […]
If you want the Baylor QB to wonder whether you are blitzing off the edge or covering the slot receiver you'll have to really book it right before or after the snap in order to reach your assignment, or the QB will have a pretty open pitch-and-catch for easy yardage.
Defenses have to make choices with their alignments against Baylor. Are you going to maintain a normal six-man box to stop the Baylor run game and give up screen passes to the outside, or will you widen out your linebackers to stop the screens and hope they can get back inside to stop Baylor's run game?
The crux for stopping Baylor comes down to this paragraph:
The danger for Baylor is if the defense becomes difficult to read and the QB is made to hesitate or has to make a decision with inaccurate information. However, utilizing any serious degree of disguise or different personnel groupings is made extremely difficult by the wide spacing of the Baylor personnel and the quick tempo. If you call in a blitz or exotic look and are unsuccessful, the Bears can hurry to the line of scrimmage and punish you for the mistake over and over again while you desperately try to switch to a safer call.
Using completely different tactics, Kansas State and Oklahoma both made Bryce Petty hesitate. Baylor's is the most effective and, on paper, unstoppable offensive structure in college football. When it finds a weakness, it destroys it (and then lines up quickly and destroys it again). But when Petty was forced to think outside the box a bit, he at least temporarily struggled.
Oklahoma State has derived strong defensive ratings in part because of a sturdy run front. Despite an almost non-existent pass rush, the Cowboys rank eighth in the country with 78 tackles for loss. They pursue the ball well near the line of scrimmage. Just ask Texas, which was forced to rely on Case McCoy's arm to move the football, as running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were held to 122 yards on 35 carries (3.5 per carry).
Oklahoma State ranks 16th in Stuff Rate (runs stopped for a loss), 29th in Adj. Line Yards, and 22nd in Rushing S&P+. Linebackers Caleb Lavey, Shaun Lewis, and Ryan Simmons have combined for 26 tackles for loss with only four sacks. Considering their general reluctance to blitz (and their ineffectiveness in doing so), one could figure that the 'Pokes are more likely to try the KSU approach than the blitz-early-and-often approach that Oklahoma took. It plays to their strengths, especially considering the aforementioned linebackers have also defensed 13 passes. If the OSU line can filter runs toward the linebackers and seasoned OSU safeties Daytawion Lowe and Shamiel Gary hold up -- no offense attacks safeties better than Baylor's -- the Cowboys could have some success.
But for how long? Nobody stops Baylor for 60 minutes.
Surviving the swarm
Of course, this game isn't only about stopping Baylor's offense.
Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon. Jerome Miron, USA Today.
At some point, Oklahoma State will have to score some points, too, and the 'Pokes will have to do so against a Baylor defense that has finally begun to master defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's SWARM-SWARM-SWARM-SWARM defense. Baylor is not undefeated simply because it can score. It can stop you from scoring, too, and the Bears have become elite because of it.
For the second straight year, Oklahoma State's offense is dealing with the effects of a mediocre offensive line. After years with one of the best plug-and-play lines in the country, OL coach Joe Wickline has struggled to press the right buttons up front, and it has forced new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to remain conservative and protective in his play-calling.
Only three times all year has OSU averaged better than 4.6 yards per rush, but the Cowboys are going to have to figure out a way to move the ball on standard downs. Baylor is 10th in the country in Standard Downs S&P+, almost equally effective against the run and pass. The short pass worked well for OSU against Texas last week -- quarterback Clint Chelf was 16-for-22 for 297 yards, 6-for-7 for 83 yards and a touchdown to senior Charlie Moore -- but Baylor's too fast to live off of short passing all game. As strange as it feels to say this, Baylor's defense is much, much better than Texas', and Oklahoma State's offense is, overall, the weakest unit that will take the field on Saturday night.
Lewis Field is going to be cold, wet, and all sorts of loud two evenings from Thursday. This game is the biggest threat standing between Baylor and a 12-0 record. Can OSU withstand the waves of the Baylor attack? And if the Cowboys have some early defensive success, can Baylor weather the struggles without falling pretty far behind? Can OSU even move the ball?
Baylor holds the edge in this one, but not significantly. The cat-and-mouse games on both sides of the ball would be worth watching even if neither of these teams were BCS contenders. Considering, however, that this game could decide the Big 12 race and play a role in the national title hunt, that makes this game a can't-miss affair.