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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Observations about the Baylor defense

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The defensive scheming of Bears coach Dave Aranda will pose a major test for OU on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When Baylor University fired Art Briles in 2016 for the head football coach’s role in a sexual assault scandal, the school brass ultimately decided against hiring a familiar face to overhaul the program.

Instead, the Bears went in an entirely different direction by hiring defensive-minded coach Matt Rhule away from Temple. It was a case of changing the culture taken to the extreme, and the move paid off with an appearance in the Big 12 title game in 2019. After Rhule left for the Carolina Panthers at the end of that season, Baylor doubled with another defensive-oriented hire in LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

Between five seasons of Rhule and Aranda’s leadership, the Bears have developed a clear identity built around physicality. On offense, they skew heavily to a ground game led by running backs Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner. They’re averaging a combined 6.8 yards per carry, which helps account for Baylor’s 60-40 split of runs to passes.

Defensively, Baylor continues to play with violence and decisiveness. Whereas Rhule’s teams took more of a meat-and-potatoes approach to scheming on D, Aranda has a well-earned reputation as a savant dating back to his days running the notoriously funky defense at Utah State.

This week, Aranda will try his hand at cooking up a game plan to stop the Oklahoma Sooners offense, which is surging since coach Lincoln Riley elevated freshman Caleb Williams to starting quarterback. Expect Baylor to meet OU with a well-studied, resourceful approach on defense.

Siaki it to me

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Whether by necessity or choice, Aranda won’t let his team get tied down with just one defensive front. This season, Baylor appears to be playing a significant amount of three-man Tite front. The nose tackle lines up directly across from the center in a zero technique, while the defensive ends set up across from the inside shoulder of the offensive tackles on both sides of the formation.

Additionally, BU uses a 2-4-5 alignment. Aranda was an early adopter of the oddball scheme featuring two defensive tackles and two hybrid outside linebackers on the edges.

Nose tackle Siaki Ika likely presents the biggest problem for the Sooners among the Bears lining the trenches. The LSU transfer is a load in the interior of the DL at 6-4, 350 pounds. Although Ika is far from Baylor’s most productive player, his size alone occupies blockers up front. That helps keep inside LBs Terrel Bernard and Dillon Doyle clean, freeing them up to try to make plays in the backfield.

Of particular concern for OU, center Andrew Raym is working through his fair share of struggles this year. The sophomore from Broken Arrow has started to look more comfortable with the responsibilities of the center position in OU’s offense, which includes setting protections. But does he have the strength to tangle with Ika for 30-ish snaps on Saturday? To be determined.

Aerial vulnerability?

NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ika may be the biggest matchup issue for OU, but Baylor’s best defensive player is safety Jalen Pitre. A former LB, Pitre transitioned into the hybrid nickel position in Aranda’s scheme. The role calls for Pitre to do it all: drop into coverage, rush the passer from depth and near the line of scrimmage, and play run support.

Pitre is far from a physical specimen at 6-0, 197 pounds. He also doesn’t possess blazing speed. He does seem to have a plus ability to diagnose what the offense is doing, and he doesn’t hesitate to lay the lumber. Pitre currently ranks second in the Big 12 with 12.5 tackles for loss, which is a testament to his ability to create chaos all over the field.

As good as Pitre is, the rest of Baylor’s secondary leaves something to be desired. The Bears’ advanced metrics against the pass all fall in the range between average and bad. That goes for everything from completion rate to explosiveness. It doesn’t help that Baylor’s pass rush is lackluster, ranking 69th in overall sack rate and 106th nationally in sack rate on passing downs.

The cracks in the Bears’ aerial defenses have started to emerge lately as they’ve faced teams better equipped to exploit them. In their seventh game of the season against BYU, for instance, the Cougars lit Baylor up for 342 yards on 31 throws, average of 11 yards per pass. TCU carved up the Bears last week with the arm of backup quarterback Chandler Morris, an OU transfer making his first start of the season. Morris completed 30-of-42 attempts for 468 yards and two touchdowns in the Horned Frogs’ 30-28 win.

Notably, Baylor has had problems containing receivers with a variety of different skill sets. Burner Xavier Worthy of Texas caught four balls for 115 yards and a score two weeks ago when the Longhorns fell to Baylor in Waco. Then lanky TCU wideout Quentin Johnston (6-4, 201 pounds) had a field day last week with five receptions for 142 yards and a TD. Iowa State tight ends Chase Allen and Charlie Kolar combined for 169 yards on 12 catches in the Cyclones’ matchup with the Bears earlier this year.

In other words, it’s hard to pick out one area where Baylor may be especially vulnerable to what OU can do through the air.

Counter this

Lastly, Aranda has refined a solid plan of attack for containing GT counter. It’s one of the staples of OU’s running game, and Baylor’s approach to defending the concept kept the Sooners in check in their meeting last season.

OU fans should be familiar with the concept, which the Sooners have run approximately 2,396 times since Riley became offensive coordinator in 2015. The center joins the guard and tackle on the play side of the formation in blocking down. The guard and tackle on the back side pull in the opposite direction. It forms the basis for a series of calls in OU’s offense.

Aranda’s antidote relies on his defenders aggressively challenging OU’s blockers. Rather than allowing the pulling guard and tackle to get around end, Aranda coaches his edge players to cut off their path by meeting them in the backfield. The penetration can create a host of issues in the execution of the play.

Riley can counter Aranda’s counter to the GT counter in a series of ways. For example, if Caleb Williams can handle it, Riley could draw up an RPO that uses the defense’s aggressiveness against it:

Alternatively, the Sooners could put GT counter on ice and instead rely on wide zone as the core of their rushing attack for the matchup:

That’s just one aspect of what should be a fun exercise in counterpunching between Riley and Aranda on Saturday.