When Baylor played Kansas a year ago at McLane Stadium, the Bears’ nonconference schedule had been wiped out by COVID-19.
The Bears romped to a 47-14 win anyway.
Heading into Saturday’s Big 12 opener against the Jayhawks at 2:30 p.m. in Lawrence, the Bears already have a 29-20 win over Texas State and a 66-7 demolition of Texas Southern under their belts.
Second-year Baylor coach Dave Aranda likes seeing the Bears’ potential strengths and knowing what they need to work on as they begin conference play. That’s a luxury they didn’t have in 2020.
“I feel as if we’re developing,” Aranda said. “I can see the confidence, particularly on offense where there was limited confidence. I can see that building and there’s a formation of belief there.”
With 10 returning starters, the Bears felt confident they would put a strong defense on the field. Most of the questions were on the offensive side of the ball.
Aranda brought in former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes in January to try to improve an offense that ranked ninth in the Big 12 with 310.2 yards and 23.3 points per game in 2020.
Though competition will certainly get tougher as they delve deeper into the Big 12, there’s no question the Bears possess a lot more offensive potential than last season as they rank 11th nationally and first in the Big 12 with 550 yards per game.
Through the first two games, the Bears rank fifth in the country with 328.5 yards rushing per game while averaging 7.47 yards per carry.
The Bears have already produced five 100-yard rushing performances with two apiece by Trestan Ebner and Abram Smith and a 102-yard outing by Taye McWilliams against Texas Southern.
Last year, the Bears had no 100-yard rushing performances the entire season as they ranked last in the Big 12 with 90.3 yards rushing per game. Aranda gives much of the credit to an improved offensive line.
“I can see a real strong change in confidence in that group,” Aranda said. “I think (offensive line coach) Eric Mateos has done a great job, as I’ve mentioned before. Just their connectiveness and their level of honesty and keeping stuff real is way unique and way strong. I would bet on us with that group continuing to get better.”
With such a strong running game, there has been less pressure on fourth-year junior Gerry Bohanon to make the transition to starting quarterback.
Bohanon has put up solid numbers as he’s completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns in his first two starts. He’s also worked on improving deep passes as he hit Tyquan Thornton streaking downfield for a 48-yard touchdown against Texas Southern in the first quarter.
“I think Gerry’s improved,” Aranda said. “I think Gerry’s standards for himself are very high, and he’s got a really, really strong confidence. Gerry’s always going to push himself to excel and look for better ways to improve. The more I learned about Gerry, the more I love him, and just really fortunate that he’s on our side of things, and that the team gets to see his work ethic and his care factor.”
The Bears will open Big 12 play against a Kansas team that’s gone 1-1 under first-year coach Lance Leipold, the fifth Jayhawks coach in the last eight years.
After opening with a 17-14 home win over South Dakota, the Jayhawks were buried by No. 16 Coastal Carolina, 49-22, on Friday night in Conway, S.C.
Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall hit 17 of 21 passes for 245 yards and two scores while Reese White rushed for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
But Aranda has been impressed with the effort the Jayhawks have shown under Leipold, who replaced Les Miles after going 24-10 in the last three seasons at Buffalo.
“I think one thing particularly with Kansas is you can see their improvement and you can see their level of effort, and you can see their level of buy-in,” Aranda said. “There’s a strong correlation to those things and the coaching staff they have, so to see it this early in their tenure is a great statement for them.”
One of Kansas’ biggest strengths is dual-threat quarterback Jason Bean. The North Texas transfer has completed 58 percent of his passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for a team-high 154 yards and two scores.
The Bears had difficulty keeping Texas State quarterback Brady McBride in the pocket in the opener, and will try to do a better job of containing the elusive Bean.
“He’s dangerous, fast,” Aranda said. “Some of the issues that came up against Texas State in our rush, and our lack of pass rush integrity is a concern with him. A lot of it is going to be that there’s a play that breaks down and a quarterback runs for 30 yards, and so we have to be much improved in that phase of both the coverage, the vision, the rush lens, and the rush integrity.”
After the win over Texas Southern, Aranda said that he expects Baylor noseguard Siaki “Apu” Ika to be back in the lineup after he was suspended against Texas Southern for violation of team rules.
The Bears collected 10 tackles for loss against Texas Southern, including two apiece by linebackers Matt Jones and Aston Logan and safety-linebacker Jalen Pitre.
“Matt’s a playmaker, he’s got a knack,” Aranda said. “We have a fair amount of those guys on defense. We’ve got guys that have the ability to process really quick and play with a kind of a freedom. There’s a stretch there where I think Matt impacted about four drives in a row just making plays, and so he’s somebody that can play inside and outside.”
Baylor safety JT Woods was named Big 12 co-defensive player of the week after returning a fumble for a school-record 97-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Texas Southern. Aranda likes the way his defense continues to mature.
“I think on defense, the ability to use all of our pieces in a way that really comes together in a real strong identity is still being worked on,” Aranda said. “We’ve got some guys who can still grow and mature into the roles we would like for them to have. I think this is a big week for that.”
The kickoff for the Baylor-Iowa State game on Sept. 25 at McLane Stadium has been set for 2:30 p.m. on Fox.