Baylor program regains footing in Matt Rhule’s second year at helm
CHARLESTON — Matt Rhule inherited a bad situation at Baylor.
Art Briles was fired as the Bears’ head coach in May 2016 in the wake of a BU investigation of his handling of sexual assault allegations against his players. Rhule was hired as the full-time replacement after a season of Huntington native Jim Grobe running the program on an interim basis. When Rhule got to Waco, Texas, he was faced with rebuilding a program in disarray.
Rhule’s first Baylor team hit some bumps, finishing 2017 with a 1-11 record. In year two, his Bears — even with some losses along the way — appear to be in a much better place.
Baylor enters Thursday’s game at No. 13 West Virginia (FS1, 7 p.m.) at 4-3 overall with a 2-2 record in the Big 12. Like WVU (5-1, 3-1 Big 12), the Bears were off last week and come into Milan Puskar Stadium off a loss, albeit a close one to now No. 6 Texas in Austin, Texas.
Rhule, who played linebacker at Penn State in the 1990s and moved to Waco after a successful stint as the head coach at Temple, has transformed how Baylor plays the game. There might be some coincidental similarities to some of the calling cards of the Brilesera Baylor teams, but WVU coach Dana Holgorsen sees what Rhule is doing as a complete rebuild from the ground up.
“It doesn’t resemble anything — I think they’d be offended if you said that,” Holgorsen said when asked how the new Baylor compares to the old Baylor. “It was obviously a complete overhaul. There’s plenty of that style of offense out there, but it’s not happening at Baylor like that. They’re very multiple with what they do, they’ll do a lot of drop-back stuff, they’ll open it up, they’ll do a lot of 10 personnel, throw the ball around a good bit, they’ll do some quarterback-run game, put three, four tight ends in the game and try to slow things down. They are pretty multiple with what they do on both sides, nothing like it was, though, for sure.
“Defensively there’s some, just with what Phil Bennett was doing when he was there, but there’s no connections whatsoever. He was a four-down, quarters guy — and that’s their base: four-down and quarters — although they’ve become much more multiple with it with three-down fronts and different blitzes. They are even doing that four-levels thing where they back up linebackers and put them behind linebackers and stuff, so you’re going to keep seeing more and more of that.”
Sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer has been a big part of Baylor’s bounce-back season with both his arm and his legs.
Brewer, a Big 12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year last season, has completed 152 of 245 pass attempts for 1,798 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions. He also leads the team with four rushing touchdowns, proving to be a threat on the ground and giving the Bears another dimension on offense.
“I think their quarterback makes them go,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “Last year when we were coming into our game with them, (Zach) Smith was more of a pocket guy and couldn’t move. I think Brewer creates so many different things for them.”
The Bears also have former Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd, who made the switch from orange to green as well as from running back to receiver. Hurd leads the Bears with 622 receiving yards on 47 receptions, and his three touchdowns through the air are second on the team behind Denzel Mims’ four.
Hurd hasn’t totally left his old ways behind, however, as he has 25 carries for 112 yards and three touchdowns as well. He is one of a handful of Baylor running backs who see playing time. Much like the Mountaineers, the Bears have found some success spreading the ball around among a group of capable backs.
“Hurd, after you add him into the mix, gives them a lot of production at wideout,” Gibson said. “Then he’ll come in and run the ball. But I think they’re bought in. They believe in what they do, how they do it and they stick with it. They’re still able to run the ball, and that’s what keeps people off balance.”
So West Virginia will need to be prepared for Baylor to throw a little bit of everything at a Mountaineer defense coming off its worst performance of the season at Iowa State. Some of that can be credited to the Cyclones keeping WVU’s defense on the field, but some flaws were exposed in Ames, Iowa, that West Virginia will be aiming to fix when Baylor and its multiple looks come to town.
When the Bears were down in 2017 they gave the Mountaineers all they wanted, with WVU escaping Waco with a 38-36 win. West Virginia knows it will need to be better to get another winning result this season.
BAYLOR (4-3, 2-2) at WVU (5-1, 3-1)
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown
Radio: WWQB 102.3-FM