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Baylor running game biggest improvement in season opener

Baylor running game biggest improvement in season opener

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Those weren’t hollow words when second-year Baylor coach Dave Aranda told the media last Monday that his first priority offensively was to establish the run.

After averaging a Big 12-low 90.3 yards rushing in 2020, the Bears looked stuck in the mud even when they were playing on artificial turf. The lack of a ground game was a big reason why the Bears finished 2-7.

Something had to change. And it did in Saturday night’s 29-20 season-opening win over Texas State in San Marcos.

The Bears produced two 100-yard rushers as Trestan Ebner carried 20 times for 120 yards while Abram Smith picked up 118 yards on 19 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns.

“We just harped on physicality, especially coming in and imposing our will on people,” Ebner said. "I think the best way you can do that is in the ground game, so I’m really proud of just how the guys attacked it, and they were moving people. And we were able to run downhill and be productive in the run game.”

The season opener marked the debut of first-year Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes’ wide-zone offense that he ran so effectively at BYU. The Cougars ranked third nationally by averaging 43.5 points while amassing 522.2 yards per game in 2020.

Picked second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, quarterback Zach Wilson was the most notable player for the Cougars. But they also produced a dynamic runner in Tyler Allgeier who produced 1,130 yards rushing and 13 scores.

Baylor Bears hold off Bobcats, 29-20, in season opener

Now in his fifth season with the Bears, Ebner hit the holes with more authority than previous seasons. He showed his versatility by running tough and making sharp cuts to break away from defenders to pick up more yardage.

Known more as an All-America kickoff returner and a major threat catching the ball out of the backfield, Ebner’s 100-yard rushing performance against the Bobcats was just the second of his five-year career for the Bears. He became the first Baylor player in school history to surpass 1,000 career yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving.

“I think Trestan’s ability to make plays when they’re not there is a gift that he has,” Aranda said. “So I think his challenge is, not every play is going to be a 20-yard gain. If there’s a four-yard gain, let’s get that. And I thought there was some of that today. I feel like Eb’s way turned on. I feel like he’s playing the best since I’ve seen him.”

After playing linebacker last season, Smith has returned to running back where he began his career with the Bears in 2017. Smith is the Bears’ battering ram in the backfield as he bulled through Texas State defenders to pick up gritty yardage.

Baylor produced two 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since the 2018 season opener against Abilene Christian with JaMycal Hasty and John Lovett.

“Abe’s physical, wants to come downhill,” Aranda said. “I thought he was showing that. I think as the game goes on, as we get into more of a rhythm, I think he’s going to be a guy you want to feed. Lot of good things, good 1-2 punch.”

Smith fumbled at Texas State’s 20 to end a threat early in the game, but with the encouragement of his teammates he bounced back to deliver a strong performance.

“You feel like you’re backed up by your people and you can go out and not try to be perfect, but just feel like I can go out and try to be my best and people got me,” Aranda said. “I don’t have to be this or that to be accepted or to be loved. So I think there’s been a lot of work with that. I bring that up because a couple of guys went right up to Abram and did that again. So I think that’s a huge piece.”

With Baylor’s often maligned offensive line playing at a higher level, the Bears controlled the clock against the Bobcats by keeping the ball for 34 minutes and 48 seconds.

The addition of Buffalo transfer Jacob Gall at center and Vanderbilt transfer Grant Miller at right guard helped shore up a Baylor offensive line that also included two starting senior returners in left tackle Connor Galvin and left guard Xavier Newman-Johnson and sophomore right tackle Gavin Byers.

“Offensive line-wise, just being in that room, however many yards we rushed for, they know the exact number,” Aranda said. “They take a lot of pride in that and they want to build off of that. For them to have something to feel good about, it’s been a while. So I’m happy for them.”

With Ebner and Smith‘s ability to run the ball effectively, the pressure was off fourth-year junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon to carry the offense in his first start. Bohanon put up solid passing numbers as he hit 15 of 24 for 148 yards.

Though Bohanon’s longest pass was 26 yards to RJ Sneed, he showed some arm strength on several long pass attempts. Bohanon ran just four times for nine yards, but he’s another running threat who could break out in upcoming games.

“Gerry has just always been a very composed guy,” Ebner said. “He has all our respect. He knows how to demand a huddle and knows that we’ll follow him in any situation. We know he’s our leader.”

Of course, there were way too many penalties that stopped the Bears from putting more points in the board as they were flagged 11 times for 99 yards. The Bears will try to clean up the penalties heading into Saturday’s home opener against Texas Southern at McLane Stadium.

“I felt like we really could have played a lot better. I’m disappointed in the penalties,” Aranda said. “As much as we’ve made an example of it, addressed it in practice, I need to do a much better job. I take that kind of personally. That’s an area I need to improve a lot.”


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