Fueled by balanced offense, Baylor eyeing a Big 12 title
WACO, Texas -- Baylor coach Art Briles knows what you think, and he'd prefer you go right on thinking it. Pass-happy offense run by a pass-happy former high school coach in a pass-happy league. Praise the lord and pass (and pass and pass and pass) the 70-63.
"It's kind of a misconception we appreciate," Briles said.
That misconception grew from some truth. After all, 70-63 is an actual final score from the 2012 season (a heartbreaking loss at West Virginia). And Baylor does gain a lot of yards through the air. Last season, the Bears finished fourth in the nation and second in the Big 12 in passing by averaging 340.5 yards a game. But they didn't reach that mark throwing 50 times a game. In fact, the Bears finished No. 30 in the nation in pass attempts with 475.
Baylor's season turned last year -- 3-4 its first seven games, 5-1 its final six -- when the Bears returned to a more balanced offense. Just as tailback Terrance Ganaway helped keep defenses honest while Robert Griffin III mounted a Heisman campaign in 2011, the thunder-lightning combo of Glasco Martin and Lache Seastrunk helped quarterback Nick Florence finish second only to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in total offense and helped the Bears lead the Big 12 in rushing with 3,012 yards. The adjustment took half a season because that's how long it took Seastrunk to work his way into a major role in the offense. That day finally came in a win against Kansas on Nov. 3. Seastrunk, the former five-star recruit who sat out 2011 after transferring from Oregon, carried 17 times for 103 yards. Afterward, Seastrunk cried. "It felt so good to actually be a part of something," he said. "To feel like you actually earned something instead of someone giving it to you." He never carried fewer than 15 times in a game after that, and he never gained fewer than 91 yards. Baylor turned into one of the hottest teams in the country. The Bears derailed Kansas State's national title dreams. They won a second consecutive bowl game. And they set the table for a potentially historic 2013.
Florence is gone, but junior Bryce Petty seems ready to fill his cleats. Three starting offensive linemen return. Martin and Seastrunk, who combined to rush for 1,901 yards and 22 touchdowns, are back. Seastrunk, who averaged 7.7 yards a carry, will be integrated into the offense from day one. That's why Briles is more than happy to allow everyone to think of the Bears as some soft, chuck-and-duck outfit. By all means, keep two safeties high.
"People think of us as a passing football team," Briles said. "But if it's time to get dirty, we're going to get dirty."
Seastrunk is the headliner. He was the elite recruit. His initial courtship is a major reason Oregon is being investigated by the NCAA. (The year Seastrunk signed, Houston-based handler Will Lyles received $25,000 from Oregon for a bogus recruiting service. Lyles has said Oregon paid for influence. Seastrunk has not been accused of wrongdoing.) He's the electric jitterbug who can peel off an 80-yard touchdown run after a couple of so-so carries. "He's got freakish qualities," Briles said of Seastrunk. "He's a difference-maker. Give him the ball 20 times a game, and I think he can average 200 yards a game. He may have eight for 14, but he'll have 12 for 186."
Still, it's the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Martin who provides the Bears with their attitude as well as their punch near the goal line. "Glasco is going to run through you," Seastrunk said, "and make the defense pay every time."
This sets up a passing attack that made Griffin a Heisman winner and turned receivers Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams into stars. Now, the Bears hope it will do the same for Petty and receiver Tevin Reese. Reese played alongside Seastrunk at Temple (Texas) High, catching only six passes his junior year as a 130-pound tight end. The following summer, Reese wowed college coaches at camps with his speed. That resulted in scholarship offers, and now that a steady diet of burgers has made Reese a beefy 168, he returns as Baylor's top deep threat after averaging 18.1 yards a catch in 2012.
Because Mike Leach plucked Briles from the high school ranks while at Texas Tech, the prevailing assumption is that Briles, like Leach, uses the pass to (only occasionally) set up the run. But Briles -- who would be coach Eric Taylor if Taylor were A) Not a fictional character and B) Hadn't bailed on TMU and headed back to high school -- runs an offense that more closely resembles the one he ran in the late 1990s at Stephenville (Texas) High. In 1998, with a future rock band bass player named Kelan Luker at quarterback, Briles coached an offense that set a national record by gaining 8,664 yards. Of those, 3,750 came on the ground.
Petty believes Baylor could have a similar offensive balance in 2013. "That's what people don't realize," Petty said. "Our offense goes when our offensive line goes and when our running backs go. That creates everything for our passing game. When you think of an air attack, you think pass first. But it's all set up on the run."
Can Petty pull the trigger as well as Griffin and Florence? Think back a year. Florence, who had burned a redshirt to replace an injured Griffin in the second half of the 11th game of the 2011 season, didn't seem at first glance like a guy who could capably replace a Heisman winner. Florence threw for more yards (4,309 to 4,293) than Griffin and came within 131 yards of his 2011 rushing total. The offense -- and the running game -- helps the quarterback.
Petty has paid his dues. He originally committed to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer prior to his senior season at Midlothian (Texas) High in 2008. When Fulmer got fired and replaced by Lane Kiffin, Kiffin told Petty and fellow commit Tajh Boyd they wouldn't be needed at Tennessee. Boyd signed with Clemson and is currently rewriting that school's record book. The best Petty could do was a grayshirt offer from Baylor. So he delayed enrollment until January 2010. Then he redshirted. Now, he has two more seasons of eligibility. That means Petty could still be the starter in 2014 when the Bears move into their new stadium, a small-but-state-of-the-art 45,000-seater currently being built on the banks of the Brazos River. "It fires me up," Petty said. "Schools don't do that. They add on. They build additions. But they don't just build new stadiums."
Petty would also like to do something else. He'd like to lead Baylor to its first Big 12 title. In what appears to be a wide-open Big 12, the Bears chances seem as good as anyone's. Petty can't pinpoint exactly when the idea of winning the Big 12 felt realistic, but he knows Baylor can compete. Martin, a fifth-year senior, has noticed the same shift in attitude. "[His freshman year] a lot of the older players were OK with losing," Martin said. "You'd hear laughing in the locker room after games. It seems these players coach Briles has brought in hate to lose."
But they love to run -- as much as they love to throw. "I sound like a broken record, but everything's just fun," Petty said. "It's fun to watch Lache do what he does. It's fun to watch Glasco run over people. It makes it very easy to wake up every day and come out here."
It also makes it quite easy to believe a Big 12 title at Baylor isn't just a hopeless dream anymore.