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Kicking the Tires: Baylor Bears

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After a bye week to regroup, K-State begins conference play at home. The winless Baylor Bears await.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

“The winless Baylor Bears.” For some of you whippersnappers, that may seem like an odd statement. For us elder statesmen, it seems like a trip down memory lane. Four times in Big 12 history, the Bears finished with a winless record in conference play.

That seems like ancient history after everything that happened since Art Briles came and went as Baylor’s head coach. But after shocking losses to Liberty and UTSA, plus more-expected defeats at the hands of Duke and Oklahoma, the Bears are winless as they head to Manhattan.

For their part, K-State looks to bounce back from a 14-7 loss at Vanderbilt two weeks ago. It seemed like a respectable loss at the time. Then Vandy went out and lost 59-0 in the same stadium against Alabama last weekend.

Player to Watch

K-State

Passing: Jesse Ertz, 36-65-2, 587 yards, 9.0 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 195.7 yards/game

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 33 carries, 162 yards, 4.9 yards/carry, 2 TDs, 54.0 yards/game

Receiving: Byron Pringle, 6 receptions, 146 yards, 24.3 yards/reception, 1 TD, 73.0 yards/game

Baylor

Passing: Zach Smith, 46-86-4, 742 yards, 8.6 yards/attempt, 7 TDs, 185.5 yards/game

Rushing: John Lovett, 54 carries, 226 yards, 4.2 yards/carry, 2 TDs, 56.5 yards/game

Receiving: Denzel Mims, 18 receptions, 406 yards, 22.6 yards/reception, 6 TDs, 101.5 yards/game

As reported this week, Baylor’s second-leading receiver, Chris Platt, is out for the season. He already had five touchdowns and sported a 25.1 yard average per reception. K-State should be able to focus more attention on Mims now, as no other Baylor receiver has a touchdown catch this season.

Probably the biggest question is which version of K-State’s offense will show up. Ertz looked smooth and efficient through two games against overmatched competition. But drops and misfires led to a miserable 10-28-2 line against Vandy. The Commodores’ defense is significantly better than the Bears’ outfit, giving Ertz and the wide receivers a good opportunity to bounce back.

Speaking of the Baylor defense, defensive lineman Xavier Jones is also out with injury. He’s contributed nine tackles, including two sacks, this season. Among those who will play, linebackers Clay Johnston (36 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and a sack) and Taylor Young (23 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, two sacks) lead the charge. Notably, the Bears are fairly disruptive up front, with 32 tackles for loss and 11 sacks through four games, but have only one interception.

Offensively, the Bears still have some big-play ability in the passing game, though that takes a big hit with Platt’s injury. The big difference is the pedestrian running game. From my last Baylor game preview of the Briles era, the Bears’ leading rusher was Shock Linwood, averaging 8.0 yards per carry. One of the most difficult aspects of defending the Briles Spread was that they could kill you both on the ground and in the air. With this Baylor team, K-State should be able to focus on taking away big plays in the passing game without the fear of an elite running back breaking big runs.

Advanced Stats

K-State Offense vs. Baylor Defense

K-State Offense vs. Baylor Defense

Remember last year, when Alex Barnes carried 19 times for 129 yards and scored four touchdowns against Baylor? Barnes, Justin Silmon, Dalvin Warmack and Ertz may well find success on the ground again. Lost in the rubble of the Vandy loss was the fact that K-State’s run game was very effective, and has been all season, ranking sixth in Success Rate and 45th in explosiveness. Baylor is 95th and 111th by the same metrics.

So K-State will find success running the ball. But when needed, can they take advantage of a Bears defense that will almost certainly be keying on the run? Maybe. Baylor is pretty bad defensively against the pass, too. If Ertz can settle down and return to form, then the Bears may be off-balance all day. And as mentioned above, Baylor has only one interception on the season.

Speaking of settling down, a big part of that will be the offensive line’s protection and how much havoc Baylor can wreak. The Bears’ overall Havoc Rate is only 71st nationally, even with the 32 TFL on the season. The Wildcats have been above-average at protecting Ertz this year. Making him comfortable in the pocket will help the offense get going again.

K-State Defense vs. Baylor Offense

K-State Defense vs. Baylor Offense

As long as K-State can prevent big plays both on the ground and through the air, they should be OK in this one. That seems like an obvious statement, but Baylor is among the bottom 15 teams in the country by both Rushing and Passing Success Rate. K-State is top-25 at limiting successful rushes, but of course allows successful passes with abandon.

The tipping point will most likely be big plays through the air. Both teams are in the top 10 in passing explosiveness in this metric, so it will be a matchup of strength on strength. Platt’s absence will probably hurt the Bears badly here, as he and Mims combined to place severe stress on defensive secondaries.

K-State’s defense has been, perhaps surprisingly, a top-25 unit by Havoc Rate this year. Their passing-downs pass rush is excellent and their defensive backs are making plays. If they can keep Baylor off-schedule, and the numbers above suggest they can, then they should have a chance not only to get off the field, but also create some negative plays and turnovers on passing downs.

Conclusion

Nobody ever feels good about any game following a loss, much less one where the offense was as inept as it was against Vanderbilt. And Baylor didn’t help our uneasiness by showing signs of life last week against Oklahoma.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to feel good about this one. Despite their signs of life against OU, S&P+ had a projected scoring margin of -23 for Baylor. In other words, it was probably more than a bit of a fluke that the final margin was only eight. And S&P+, which still is significantly influenced by preseason ratings that boost Baylor, expects K-State to win by more than a touchdown, with a 67 percent win probability.

Wildcats 42, Bears 21