BEVO BEAT Football

Soul-searching Texas, Baylor meet Saturday in a battle of Big 12 fixer-uppers

Posted October 27th, 2017

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Everyone up and down Interstate 35 was doing some soul searching this week.

In Waco, Baylor coach Matt Rhule continues to praise the “student section, band, family and friends who stand and cheer for the guts” of the winless Bears. He absolutely believes that despite Baylor’s 0-7 record, his club is getting better.

In Austin, Texas coach Tom Herman continues to be asked about his team’s heart. If you ignored the Longhorns’ 3-4 record, ESPNU broadcasters asked him, are you proud of how hard the team is playing? “And the answer is yes,” Herman said.

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“I think anybody that’s been around here for a while can see the differences in the way that we play and the interaction between teammates,” Herman said. “The energy, enthusiasm, accountability, all of that. So the relationship has been great.”

Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup isn’t going to win any beauty contests between two rebuilding programs. Chip and Joanna Gaines can’t even gussy this up. Texas has one simple mission at McLane Stadium: Don’t become Baylor’s first win.

Baylor coach Matt Rhule (center) took over a difficult situation after taking over for Art Briles. Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune Herald

“They’re hungry and people don’t understand that,” UT linebacker Malik Jefferson said. “Their record doesn’t show how good they are and it’s very important that we have the right mindset to take the same approach on this game as any other game.”

The Longhorns (3-4, 2-2 Big 12) desperately need to get back to .500 if they have any hope of making a bowl game and finish with a winning record. A loss would be catastrophic for Herman as this game is usually treated like Baylor’s Super Bowl by the locals.

Sophomore Shane Buechele will start at quarterback for the Horns. Freshman Sam Ehlinger spent the week in UT’s concussion protocol and did not practice. He could be cleared to dress and serve as a backup, but otherwise, this is Buechele’s day. Texas may have to go with receiver Jerrod Heard as Buechele’s backup if Ehlinger cannot be cleared to play in any fashion.

It’s unclear how well Buechele can maneuver coming off an ankle injury suffered at Iowa State on Sept. 28. That puts more pressure on a running game that simply hasn’t worked. The Horns are averaging 151.4 rushing yards per game but most of those were generated by Ehlinger in recent weeks.

“We’re not going to ask him to run the football,” Herman said. “But is he going to have to scramble from time to time, is he going to have to keep the ball versus an all-out blitz on a run, or something like that? Maybe. He can do those things.”

This comes on a week when offensive coordinator Tim Beck mused he could be pressing as the team’s primary play-caller. “If I am,” Beck said, “(the players) are.”

“I’m trying to call the perfect play every time,” Beck said. “And I think they’re trying to execute perfectly every time. It’s interesting one of the things coach Herman has always said is that he’s never asked anyone to play perfect. He just asks them to play really hard and trust.”

Fans may be turning up the heat on Beck but that’s misplaced anger. Herman is the team’s de facto offensive leader. Just like former coach Charlie Strong was hired to fix the defense, Herman was picked to stabilize the offense and score points.

Herman spoke at length after Thursday’s practice about the offense’s struggles and how his message this week was simple. Everyone relax. Trust in your training. Go play hard.

“None of them want to go play bad and none of them are intentionally screwing up,” Herman said. “The play-caller is not saying, ‘I’m going to call bad plays,’ although every play, safe or cute quarterback sneak, is designed to score.

“So I’m not sure that there are real bad plays but the biggest thing is, we know our intentions are good, and we know that they’re coming from a good place,” the coach added. “We just have to take a deep breath, settle down. I think that’s where I can help a little bit.”

Sometimes it’s hard to accept that UT is relying on freshmen. It’s a blessing and a curse. Take, for example, Beck’s explanation why Ehlinger didn’t throw it deep to a wide-open Devin Duvernay last week against Oklahoma State.

“Are you talking about the double move?,” Beck said. “He just said, ‘Coach, I thought he was covered and I took my eyes off of him.”

Terrell Cuney will start center for the injured Zach Shackelford (concussion protocol). Receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps (knee) practiced late in the week and should be cleared to play.

This is a game where Todd Orlando’s defense must carry the day. That’s not an unbearable prospect anymore. Not when the unit is allowing just 23 points per game.

Baylor is expected to start quarterback Zach Smith, who has thrown eight touchdowns and six interceptions. He threw for 463 yards and four touchdowns in a near miss against Oklahoma. But backup Charlie Brewer from Lake Travis came in last week and lit up West Virginia for two touchdown passes. Again, another near miss for Baylor.

“I just think, in these times, Zach’s done too much,” Rhule said of his quarterbacks. “Charlie needs to be ready to play, but I don’t want to have a quick trigger on our quarterback.”

The Texas defense is getting better with each passing week. Holton Hill had a solid game against high-flying Oklahoma State, and Kris Boyd made strides. Breckyn Hager is coming on as a third-down pass rusher and Poona Ford is still holding his own up the middle. “I love my boys out there,” Hager said.

Baylor receiver Denzel Mims is tied for eighth nationally with seven touchdown catches and fifth in the Big 12 with 685 receiving yards. He’s every bit the receiving threat that USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

“When you see him live, he’s impressive,” Orlando said. “You’re watching some really fast defenses and you’re watching him just run away from people. Catch him, somebody catch him.”

Texas shouldn’t run away from this opportunity. The Longhorns are 7-point favorites even though this game looks like a trap. It could be Kansas 2.0 if Texas isn’t careful.

Get to Waco, get a win and get a chicken fried steak at George’s on the way home.

“We can’t turn our backs on Baylor,” UT guard Patrick Vahe said, “because they will come out swinging.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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