Of the many eye-popping numbers Baylor has posted this season, the most telling isn't a total yardage number or a touchdown number, although all are historically impressive.
No, the best Baylor stat actually deals with a lack of production by the offense: The number is 23, which is how many second-half passes quarterback Bryce Petty has thrown in seven games.
Petty leads the Big 12 in passing yards per game at 350, and he's done that despite throwing the 19th most second-half passes in the conference -- fewer than three quarterbacks from West Virginia, and 20 fewer than his freshman backup Seth Russell, according to cfbstats.com. (Last year, Baylor QB Nick Florence threw 205.) He's passed for 2,066 yards on 153 attempts in seven first halves, week after week putting Baylor ahead by such an insurmountable margin that his services are no longer needed in the second half, particularly in fourth quarters, when he's completed just one pass all season.
Of course, the knock on the Bears is that they've done this against a laughable schedule: Wofford, Buffalo, UL Monroe, West Virginia, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas, with only the two Kansas teams on the road. It's essentially a Mountain West-caliber schedule, so far, which is why Baylor sits undefeated yet sixth in the BCS, behind a Stanford team that lost to Utah. It's why the next month is all about respect, about confirmation of this Baylor team's greatness over the course of a backloaded Big 12 schedule.
For how impressive that number 23 is, Petty is finally prepared to start adding to it. When Baylor plays Oklahoma on Thursday night, there's a chance we will finally see what he and the offense are actually capable of for 60 minutes.
"The 70 point games are great, being done at halftime is great, but I want to be in there," Petty told reporters earlier this week. "I want the ball in my hands. Again, like I said, I've been waiting for this. What I haven't been waiting for is to be out by halftime, so this will be a big game for us, but it will be one I'm definitely ready for and I'm excited to play."
Obviously, such staggering dominance that puts Petty on the sidelines for half of every game is largely the doing of Art Briles' offense, which has gotten better and better as it's added better players, expanding on the foundation built by Robert Griffin III. But the Baylor offense has always put up points under Briles, even if it's doing so at an even higher rate now.
Petty has to play only 30 minutes each week because that's all the time the Baylor defense needs to shut the door.
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The first turning point for Baylor football came two years ago -- the last time Oklahoma visited Waco. With a 34-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams with eight seconds left, Griffin won himself the Heisman, and a ranked Baylor team began being taken seriously with Briles' wide-open, yet balanced, offense.
But the launching point toward championship contending came a year later, last November, when Baylor hosted top-ranked Kansas State. Not only did running back Lache Seastrunk have his breakout national game, but the defense morphed from frequently hapless to the first team to solve Heisman candidate Collin Klein, who managed only 39 rushing yards on 17 carries and threw three interceptions. Coordinator Phil Bennett devised a masterful game plan, and finally the players were good enough and experienced enough to execute it. That effort carried over into the next month, when Baylor stifled UCLA's potent running game in the Holiday Bowl. And it's carried over to this season, in which Baylor currently ranks third nationally in yards per play allowed at a paltry 4.17, after ranking 94th last year.
Not only are linebackers Eddie Lackey and Bryce Hager playing like stars, but the surrounding talent has greatly improved, led by Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound sophomore defensive end who leads the Big 12 with 12 tackles for loss. Whereas Baylor had 58 tackles for loss in 17 games last season, it already has 64 in just seven games in 2013. Whereas Baylor ranked 60th in Football Outsiders' S&P+ defense rankings (which control for opponent) last year, it currently ranks 11th.
Bennett's aggressiveness has paid off with a more experienced and more talented unit that has prevented inferior opponents from doing anything to keep up with the offense. Petty, along with his supremely talented supporting cast -- running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin; recievers Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese; lineman Cyril Richardson -- has yet to have to worry about the defense slacking and letting a bad team hang around. The offense used to need to score a lot of points to erase any doubt. It had little margin for error. Now neither unit needs more than a half to close a game, and the defense facilitates blowouts instead of shootouts.
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So now the month-long quest for respect begins. The starting quarterback is hoping for a close game so he can actually play meaningful snaps for more than five minutes, but if that happens and Baylor is challenged over the last month, the Bears may lose their appeal as the team that scores 70 and beats everyone by 50 every week. But if they continue winning by 50 every week, and if Petty continues to sit out second halves, the Big 12 may end up with no other team in the top 20 of the polls.
It's far from a lose-lose situation, of course. If Baylor keeps winning, it's still possible it will get enough help to somehow get into the national title game. But this sport is foolishly built on historical trends. Baylor has rarely been competitive, let alone a national contender; therefore, it doesn't get the benefit of the doubt with such a mediocre schedule, one that didn't feature a power conference opponent in nonconference play and one that has eight home games. It takes entire cycles of recruits for a program to solidify a reputation, and while Baylor is almost there, it's still a good deal behind Oregon, which has spent years, with the help of Phil Knight's Nike billions, building a brand as the "it" program of the West. Baylor has a new stadium on the way, but it's still the team that's just now removing the tarp off seats in the old one.
Thanks to the backloaded schedule, Baylor is still shrugging off the doubts inherent to Baylor football, even if it has already done enough to garner respect, from the marquee wins late last season -- with many of the same players -- to a scoring margin of plus-48 vs. unranked opponents (vs. plus-8 last season).
Baylor has done as much as it can to leave no doubt, so far, and that's what it will have to do the rest of the way. The Bears offense will score against Oklahoma, and they will likely score plenty against the rest of the Big 12 contenders. But if the defense continues playing near this level, Petty still may not have to worry about proving himself in many fourth quarters, unless they get the matchup they deserve against one of the other unbeaten powers in January.
There is no gimmick here, just a Baylor team that, for the first time in decades, really does do everything well.
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