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‘They are a little different’ — Underdog Baylor prepping for stiff road test at Iowa State

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Linebacker Will Williams and the Baylor defense will try to shut down an Iowa State offense led by quarterback Hunter Dekkers, running back Jirehl Brock and veteran receiver Xavier Hutchinson.

When Baylor coach Dave Aranda dissects Iowa State, he sees a team he wants to emulate.

Matt Campbell’s squads always play physical, smart football. Enviable offensive balance is complemented by a defense that makes few mistakes and soaks in fundamentals like required reading.

Following last week’s 42-7 blowout of Texas State, Aranda is bracing for a big step up in competition when the Bears face the Cyclones in the Big 12 opener at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.

“As far as the view of who we want to be and consistently look like, I would say Iowa State kind of is that in a lot of ways,” Aranda said. “They don’t beat themselves. They’re efficient with all their movements in what they do. They’re a tough outfit. I have a lot of respect for them and a lot of respect for their coach. It’s going to be a challenge for us, so I’m excited for that and to see how much we’ve grown.”

Though the Bears (2-1) are ranked No. 17 for the second straight week in the Associated Press poll, unranked Iowa State is a 2.5-point favorite.

For the first time in Aranda’s three seasons at Baylor, the Cyclones won’t have Brock Purdy at quarterback and Breece Hall at running back. Purdy is playing for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers while Hall is with the New York Jets.

Despite the loss of the two stars, the Cyclones are off to a 3-0 start with a season-opening 42-10 win over Southeast Missouri State, a 10-7 defensive slugfest over rival Iowa and last week’s 43-10 thrashing of Ohio.

Third-year sophomore Hunter Dekkers has stepped in at quarterback and completed 74.3 percent for 745 yards and eight touchdowns while junior Jirehl Brock has rushed for 280 yards and a touchdown as the featured back.

Senior receiver Xavier Hutchinson leads the Big 12 with 28 catches for 319 yards and five touchdowns, and is tied for second nationally with 9.3 catches per game.

Defensively, Iowa State ranks eighth nationally by holding opponents to 234.3 yards per game and 11th by allowing nine points per game.

“They are a little different,” Aranda said. “They’ve thrown it more than they have. I think they’re blitzing more. If you infer just those pieces in terms of the last couple of years that I’ve been watching film since we’ve been here, I would say he (Campbell) plays to the strengths of what they’ve got.”

The Cyclones have been particularly strong against the run by ranking sixth in the country by limiting opponents to 60 yards per game. Opponents have averaged just 2.6 yards per carry and scored one touchdown on the ground.

“The identity of the physicality and running the ball and stopping the run and all that for sure shows up, and that is still there,” Aranda said.

Picked second behind Oklahoma in the 2021 Big 12 preseason poll, the Cyclones are coming off a disappointing season as they finished 7-6 overall and fourth in the Big 12 at 5-4.

Despite an eighth-place prediction, the Bears finished a program-best 12-2 and won the Big 12 championship and the Sugar Bowl. One of the breakthrough moments for Baylor was its 31-29 win over then-No. 14 Iowa State at McLane Stadium in late September that gave the Bears a 5-0 record.

The game went down to the wire as Purdy hit Hall with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds remaining, but the Cyclones couldn’t convert the two-point conversion as the Bears held on for the win.

The Bears hope to come into the game healthier than last week. Aranda is hopeful that wide receiver Monaray Baldwin and tight end Ben Sims will play after missing the Texas State game with head injuries, but is awaiting more tests. Aranda said running back Taye McWilliams and defensive lineman Cole Maxwell likely won’t play against the Cyclones.

With many key players out of action, freshman Richard Reese delivered a breakout performance against the Bobcats as he exploded for 156 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 19 carries. He showed his breakaway speed on a 52-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.

Reese was named Big 12 newcomer of the week for his performance, but Aranda said he’s taking his newfound attention in stride.

“I think there’s such an eagerness and such a heartfelt want to get better that’s kind of driving him, and we’re way appreciative of that,” Aranda said. “But then on the other side, there is also a — I wouldn’t say innocence — but I think all the talk and just everything about him, he doesn’t really care for it, which I appreciate so much. So I think that just allows him to kind of be him. And it’s just so cool for that to be the case.”

Though Baylor’s offense amassed 501 yards against the Bobcats, there were some hiccups. Quarterback Blake Shapen threw a third-quarter interception and running back Craig “Sqwirl” Williams fumbled later in the quarter.

The Bears are seeking a more consistent performance against a physical defense that could be similar to the one they faced in a 26-20 double overtime loss to BYU on Sept. 10 in Provo, Utah.

“The expectations, I think all that stuff is real,” Aranda said. “So they’ve had to deal with that and work through not letting the outside come in and get to the inside. I think when you keep the focus on yourself and what you’re doing, there’s a chance to be way innovative. I think this last game in particular, we were able to break through with some of that and really keep the focus on the focus, which I’m proud of.”

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