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Baylor Kansas Football

Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon (11) hands the ball to running back Abram Smith (7) in the Bears’ 45-7 win at Kansas on Sept. 18.

It would be easy to say after West Virginia’s disastrous first half in a 23-20 loss to Texas Tech last week that there is nowhere to go but up. But in a Power Five conference, one as competitive as the Big 12 seems to be this season, that’s just not accurate.

Things can get even worse. Easily, quite frankly, with a talented and resurgent Baylor team awaiting the Mountaineers Saturday in Waco, Texas. Kickoff is scheduled for noon and the game will air on FS1.

Certainly, the Bears (4-1 overall, 1-1 Big 12) can give opponents problems, and those problems are West Virginia’s on Saturday. But if the Mountaineers (2-3, 0-2) want to avoid a third straight loss and a third straight defeat to begin conference play, they will have as much to contend with within themselves as they will find in Baylor.

Obviously, a half of football like the first two scoreless quarters the Mountaineers turned in against the Red Raiders would be detrimental. WVU players took that even a step further.

“Really don’t know why we showed up like that but we know it can’t happen again,” quarterback Jarret Doege said. “You can’t do that against a Big 12 opponent.”

Doege would later add that he couldn’t explain his team’s lack of energy or motivation. Neither could WVU head coach Neal Brown.

“Our first half against Texas Tech was inexcusable. I can’t reason it,” Brown said. “I’m so pissed how we played at the beginning of the game because other sports, I kind of understand. You’ve got all these games in other sports. Football you get 12. How the hell do you not get ready one game a week? I don’t get it.”

The regrets communicated by players and the reprimands from coaches likely ensure a head-scratching no-show isn’t likely in Waco Saturday, but even if the Mountaineers bring the energy throughout, getting the season back on track with their first road win since 2019 is still a significant challenge.

That’s largely due to the Bears, who, statistically speaking — and in the win column — have made significant strides in coach Dave Aranda’s second season. Baylor is averaging over 137 yards more per game (447.6 compared to 310.2) in total offense this year compared to last, and its being spearheaded by a revitalized running game under first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who arrived from BYU in the offseason.

Led by power backs Abram Smith (67 carries, 510 yards, six touchdowns) and Trestan Ebner (58 attempts, 348 yards) the Bears have transformed into the league’s second-best rushing attack, averaging 240 yards per contest.

And it’s not just the production, it’s also the things that come along with a strong running game. Not strapped with having to carry the offense, quarterback Gerry Bohanon has not been picked off yet this season as pass plays are often of the safe and complementary variety. Baylor has also been the best team in the league at extending drives on fourth down where it’s already converted nine times.

“They run you then they try to get vertical off of certain reads,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley explained. “You look at their fourth-down percentage [75%], it’s pretty high because when you’re playing a lot of third-and-3, 2, 1, that means on first and second down they’re getting you into that situation which is extremely tough.”

The Bears have been up to the task on defense as well, yielding just 312.4 yards and 17.4 points per game, third and second, respectively, in the two categories among Big 12 teams. Baylor is led on that side of the ball by a pair of seniors in linebacker Terrel Bernard and safety Jalen Pitre. Both were first-team All-Big 12 players a year ago and this preseason and combined to make 24 tackles in WVU’s 27-21 double-overtime win over the Bears in Morgantown last season.

And then there are the specialists. Ebner was a second-team All-American at kick returner a year ago and has already brought one back for a score this season. Kicker Noah Rauschenberg leads the league in touchbacks (29) and Isaac Power leads the conference in punting (44.2 yards per punt).

Despite all that, maybe this week more than any, it really is about West Virginia. When negating mistakes and playing with energy, the Mountaineers have proven the ability to play with anyone, and in all three losses have either been tied or had the lead in the fourth quarter. Consider the total margin in WVU’s three losses combined is 12 points, with two of those losses coming via field goal in the final 18 seconds.

And so, the step Brown is looking for his team to take is hardly a leap. No matter the physical nature of Baylor’s run game or the stinginess of its defense, Brown is seeking just a little more from his players.

“If you asked me, ‘What’s a well-coached unit look like?’ or a group that’s prepared going into a game, you’re not asking your players to do something they can’t do,” Brown said. “Really, in all three phases we’re not asking our players to execute something they can’t do. Are we built right now to go outscore everybody in our league? We’re not. Would we like to be more explosive? Absolutely. Do we have some limitations we have to overcome? Yeah, but I think a lot of teams do.

“If you go back and watch us, what was the difference when we went up and down the field all four possessions in the second half compared to the first half? Well, the first thing is, we were much more aggressive from a player standpoint, meaning we had more energy, we competed harder. But also, we executed the fundamentals of the plays better and we made some plays.”

Nick Scala is the sports editor. He can be reached at 304-348-7947 or nickscala@hdmediallc.com. Follow him on Twitter @nick_scala319.