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Baylor defense rises in the red zone against SMU

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For the second straight week, Baylor’s offense wasn’t the highlight of a BU game. For most teams, a 40-13 victory would be the talking point, but for a team that has made habit of 50-point outings and scored only six points in the first half on Saturday against SMU, it was the defense that earned recognition.

“A big part of the football game today was our defense bowing up and doing what they needed to keep SMU out of the end zone,” Baylor coach Jim Grobe said.

More precisely, it was the red zone defense that flexed some muscle in the win over the Mustangs.

Thanks to a couple of Seth Russell interceptions, uncharacteristic three-and-outs, and an all-around lackadaisical showing for the Baylor offense, the Mustangs were given plenty of opportunities to score. Instead, they scored just six points in the first half when 14 points were in their grasp.

After forcing a punt on SMU’s first drive, Baylor seemingly took a step back on the next drive, allowing the offense into its red zone thanks to blown coverage from converted receiver-safety Davion Hall early in the drive. However, once SMU was within nine yards of the end zone, the defense held to force a fourth down.

The following drive followed a similar cadence, with sophomore corner Verkedric Vaughn blowing coverage on Courtland Sutton. Once inside the 20-yard line, everything changed: Vaughn redeemed himself, stuffing the run on third down on the eight-yard line.

Baylor’s defense allowed only 5-of-17 third-down conversions — a solid rate considering SMU was 7-of-15 last season against Baylor. In the red zone, the Mustangs were 0-of-4. More importantly, Baylor also forced direct turnovers in the red zone.

The Bears intercepted two balls in the end zone after strong drives from SMU. The first came after Russell threw his first interception of the day.

At the 12-yard line, SMU’s Ben Hicks lobbed a 12-yard pass to the end zone on third down, only for senior safety Orion Stewart to come down with it. Had the pass succeeded, SMU would have been up 13-3. Stewart also collected a pick-six later in the game to enable the Bears to pull away.

“I think Orion settles them down, and he settles Davion [Hall] down,” Grobe said. “He’s a young guy, a receiver that we moved to safety. He’s going to continue to get better and better.”

After his performance in the second half, saying Hall will get better offers lofty expectations.

In the second half — once again on the heels of a Russell interception — Baylor stepped up with an interception in the red zone. This time, it preserved a 13-6 lead. Hall — a converted wide receiver — not only picked off Hicks in the red zone; he impressed senior nickelback Patrick Levels on the play.

“Davion really stepped into a spot where someone busted coverage,” Levels said. “He stepped up, caused the pick […] that was a big play for us, most definitely.”

Hall showed off his ball-handling abilities, returning the interception to SMU’s 38 and setting up Baylor for a 20-6 lead.

If not for those timely interceptions in the end zone, SMU could have led 28-0 under a worst-case scenario. Instead, Baylor gained a 27-point win thanks to the defense’s timely plays.

As good as Baylor’s defense was, the internal sense in the locker room after the game was that things can always get better.

“I think we can be a good football team,” Grobe said. “I don’t think we showed today the kind of football team we can be.”

It showed enough against SMU, but it will certainly have to show more in Big 12 play.

The defense, though, is closer to where it needs to be than the offense… especially in the red zone.

Baylor defense rises in the red zone against SMU

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