This week Sports on Earth presents a four-part series on the Running Back. Today, Matt Brown looks at Baylor, which suddenly has the deepest group of running backs in college football.
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It all seems sort of unfair at this point.
The most telling aspect of Baylor's win over Texas Tech on Saturday wasn't a big play in the passing game (of which there were many), or even another example of the team's much-improved defense. Instead, it was a second-quarter sequence of five seemingly ordinary running plays in a row, the sort of thing that dealt a severe psychological blow to anyone who may have been hoping for a Red Raiders upset.
After Texas Tech's first turnover, Baylor had done what many expect in such a situation: Bryce Petty immediately went deep for a 31-yard touchdown pass to Antwan Goodley. But when the Red Raiders turned the ball over again - a fumble with 9:19 left in the second quarter -- the Bears did not go for the throat again. Instead, they opted to bludgeon their opponent's defense up the gut by lining up and handing the ball to freshman Shock Linwood three times (for nine yards, for eight yards, for 15 yards), then to freshman Devin Chafin twice (for eight yards and then three yards into the end zone). All up the middle; all painfully effective. All done out of the hurry-up spread: five runs for 43 yards in a blistering 61 seconds.
Not that the game ever felt out of Baylor's hands, even when Texas Tech raced out to a 14-0 lead, but this particular sequence was a reminder of what we've seen time and time again over the last two and a half months: Defending the Baylor offense is utterly hopeless. You can stop Baylor for a series or two, but ultimately Texas Tech's was powerless to do anything to limit Baylor for a prolonged period of time. For all the attention the big-play passing game gets, the Bears run as well as anyone.
By the end of the game, Petty threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns, and the Bears ran 57 times for 340 yards and five touchdowns. Most impressively, they did this without the top two running backs on their depth chart, as All-America candidate Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were both sidelined with day-to-day injuries. So instead of Seastrunk and Martin, Linwood led the way with 187 yards, while Chafin, who has played sparingly this season, rushed for 100 like it was nothing.
Not only does Baylor finally have first-teamers capable of matching up with anyone in the country, it also has a seemingly endless supply of playmakers. This team is no one-hit wonder; it's a deep, built-to-last program benefiting from one of the finest coaching minds in the game. And so it turns out that while the quarterback may be a Heisman candidate, Baylor suddenly has the deepest group of running backs in college football.
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Baylor's most valuable commodity is space. By playing almost exclusively out of the spread and utilizing receiver splits that are wider than anyone else, Baylor has done something that seems so simple yet has been rarely duplicated: It forces defenses to cover a maximum amount of area. For as fun as it can be to watch a team like Stanford line up with 10 players between the hashes and put together unstoppable three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust series, a team like Baylor turns football into more of a chess game. It's not that what Baylor does is complex; it's that the amount of ground a defense has to cover creates less room for error for the defense. Defenses must be smarter and more disciplined, but it doesn't help that, somehow, Art Briles is always three moves ahead.
Spread systems like this have always been capable of producing inflated statistics from lesser talent, as the last 10-15 years have shown, but, obviously, production can be taken to a level higher when the talent matches up with the best. From Robert Griffin III to a series of great receivers -- Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Antwan Goodley, being the most notable -- Baylor has been easily identifiable as a premier passing attack. The Bears finished second in passes of 30 or more yards in 2011, first last year and are first again this year. A flashy passing game is nothing new.
Good rushing numbers are nothing new to Briles either, but suddenly Baylor has developed one of the most complete running games in America. When healthy, it all starts with Lache Seastrunk, a five-star recruit who was first known as a subject of Oregon's Willie Lyles recruiting scandal. A 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior, he runs with spectacular lateral quickness, power and explosiveness, making him a lethal threat when he gets into space, which, again, is what Baylor's offense is designed to provide.
Seastrunk broke out over the second half of last season, rushing for at least 136 yards in each of Baylor's last four games, including 185 in the upset of then-No. 1 Kansas State. This season, he's rushed for an average of 8.7 yards per carry and 111 yards per game despite carrying the ball only 15 times in second halves, according to cfbstats.com, because almost every Baylor game is over by halftime (he also missed most of the Oklahoma game and all of the Texas Tech game).
Then there's Glasco Martin, a 6-foot, 230-pound senior bull who starred around the goal line last season, garnering the most red-zone rushing attempts in the Big 12 and finishing with 15 touchdowns. Injuries have limited Martin this season, but again, when healthy, he's been Baylor's go-to back in the red zone, with nearly half of his rushing attempts coming inside the 20.
With those two dealing with injuries, Baylor has somehow not skipped a beat even as the level of competition rises. The Bears have blown out Oklahoma and Texas Tech despite both Seastrunk and Martin leaving in the first half of the OU game, and that's because talented freshmen have stepped in to keep the offense moving.
Shock Linwood, a 5-foot-8, 200-pound redshirt freshman, has displayed impressive vision, quick feet and deceptive power, and while he's third on the depth chart, he ranks second in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (101.5) because of a combination of the injuries in front of him and the blowouts, sure, but also a skillset that will allow him to become one of the nation's top runners sooner or later. As the lead runner in the last two games against the Sooners and Red Raiders, he's rushed 52 times for 369 yards and a touchdown.
And, finally, there's Devin Chafin, a 6-foot, 220-pound redshirt freshman who was relegated to spot duty most of the season until Saturday, when he spelled Linwood and ran 11 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns, including a 46-yarder that essentially closed the door on the Red Raiders in the third quarter.
Space is nothing if an offense can't effectively utilize it, but Baylor has acquired four talented running backs who are capable of taking advantage of it in subtly different ways. Focus on deep coverage, and Baylor will line up and hand the ball to these backs over and over at six, seven or eight yards a clip behind the blocking of standout guard Cyril Richardson and a solid offensive line. Focus on the run, and Petty will beat you with play-action.
It's Football 101, but executed to a new degree.
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The fact that this has happened so quickly for Baylor is part of what -- on top of the backloaded schedule -- has made so many people reluctant to accept the Bears. There aren't many reference points for the words "Baylor" and "dominant" to be used together, and so Baylor is still fighting against past perceptions. Beat Oklahoma State on Saturday in what may be a de facto Big 12 title game in Stillwater, and perhaps any negatives will finally be shed.
Two years ago, in 2011, it was easy to assume that Baylor was a one-hit wonder, that the Bears were built entirely around Robert Griffin III, a worthy Heisman Trophy recipient who propelled the team to a 10-3 record -- only the second 10-win season in school history (the first was 1980). A transcendent quarterback can go a long way, especially in a conference like the Big 12, circa 2011.
But Briles is beginning to build something lasting in Waco, and for as much as the Briles-Baylor system is conducive to legendary statistics from the quarterbacks who make it hum, a la Mike Leach's days at Texas Tech, we're now learning that it is more than just that.
Briles has a Leach connection, but this is not the Air Raid. It's a mix of Leach and Gus Malzahn, a mix of the finest passing mind and the finest running mind of the 21st century. Give Baylor a quarterback like Petty and some fast receivers, and you have a great offense. Give Baylor the best group of four running backs anywhere on top of that, and you have one of best offenses anyone has ever seen.
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