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Baylor Football

Grinding Out Wins when the Game is not Pretty, the Bears are Stepping Up

November 9, 2022

Baylor Football has learned how to feed off the energy of heated road crowds, but now they look forward to the ultra-warm embrace of home as the Bears return to McLane Stadium for the first time in three weeks. Following significant road triumphs, this Saturday's contest against Kansas State is an elimination game in the Big 12 title race. 

With both teams at 6-3, the Bears possess one clear-cut advantage over the Wildcats ahead of this weekend: It's a home game at night for the first time in quite a while, and that should matter. But, if you don't believe me, listen to QB1. 

Quarterback Blake Shapen 

You know it's a critical game week when the starting quarterback gets trotted out for mic time. Most notable, given Shapen served as both messenger and interview subject, and also because he's not exactly coming off the most stellar performance. Earlier this week, Dave Aranda acknowledged Shapen's outing against OU was misleading numbers-wise but did leave lots of room for improvements, which are requirements against a sound Kansas State squad. 

Now, back on the Brazos, the slate is wiped clean ahead of Saturday, and after surviving battles in Lubbock and Norman, he and others are glad to be home. 

"It's great. We had a tough couple of weeks going on the road and playing in some big environments… a night game, obviously, so it's going to be fun and it's great that we're back home." 

Shapen sees similarities between Kansas State's defense and what they faced against Iowa State. The Cats' secondary is solid and has some length. And reading between the lines or just apparent from the matchup, the Bears know they will have to pass it around successfully this weekend. The pressure to execute rests on the shoulders of all involved, particularly the starting quarterback. And especially on most radars following a somewhat rocky outing last Saturday. 

With the offense down a couple of playmakers, Shapen praised the efforts of young wide receiver Josh Cameron who led the group with some tough catches in a performance that should only build confidence in the true freshman. The same type of praise goes for the backfield, which has successfully adhered to a next-man-up mentality out of necessity. The latest featured star, Sqwirl Williams, is fresh off a career outing in carries, yards, and scores. 

"It was great to see. He played a great game and I'm so proud of him, too," Shapen said. 

No matter who's featured, the key to the Bears' recent run boils down to complementary football.

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

"We faced so many different obstacles and struggles throughout the season. We've lost some games that maybe we feel like we should have won," Shapen said, reflecting on tough lessons learned, but learned nonetheless. 

"Even if we're not playing our best game, being able to stick together as a team, as a unit. You're seeing that more out of us now and that's what's helping us." 

The offense fails, but the defense gets a turnover. The defense can't get a stop; the offense answers the call with a matching score. The offense can't cash in, special teams give you some points, and so on. 

We've seen various examples over the past three weeks of the Bears finishing victorious due to the combined play of all three phases and required balance in any given outing, which lately has featured a common trait. 

"Also, us being able to establish the run game these past couple of weeks. I know y'all see the numbers that we're putting up in that area, and it's pretty impressive. That has a lot to do with it," Shapen said, fresh off the Sqwirl game and, before that, Richard Reese's back-to-back workloads. 

Shapen has fully embraced the pressure and the grind of leading by example throughout a long season. But in the true spirit of complementary football, he's following a lead, too, along with backs and receivers, and it's that of their grizzled offensive line. 

Whether it's the killer instinct needed to run the ball to grind the clock or to convert multiple fourth downs to seal a win, the offense's successes all start in the same place. 

"I think everything falls behind our offensive line. They're a bunch of veteran guys, they've kind of been through it. They're mature and understand what it takes to get the job done," Shapen said glowingly. "I think us being able to follow their lead … is a huge key in that happening." 

Did I mention this was a big game upcoming? If you need further evidence, Shapen uncharacteristically made sure to close out his interview by asking Baylor fans to show up and show out this weekend at McLane Stadium. Because of the win in Oklahoma, every single game remaining ramps up in importance and attention with each successive win. And this Saturday is rife with opportunity. 

"It's going to be a night game, it's going to be a big game, and we need everyone there," Shapen said. "We're on a roll and we've got to keep it going, so I'm excited to see everyone at the game." 

Wide Receiver Josh Cameron

Down Richard Reese in the run game, Sqwirl Williams filled the void. Down Monaray Baldwin in the receiving game, redshirt freshman Josh Cameron breathed life into the Baylor offense with clutch receptions in crucial situations. 

His QB pointed to the work put in before kickoff as the reason for Cameron's successful step forward last Saturday. 

"Josh had a great week of practice leading up to the game. He was fun just to have on the field and see him have a game like that and that only just boosts confidence in a guy like that." 

Entering last week, the redshirt freshman from Cedar Park had seven catches for 59 yards in six games this season. Cameron set career highs in the Oklahoma game alone with five receptions for a team-best 72 yards. He has yet to reach the endzone, but that's only a matter of time and should happen plenty in his career. 

Not only does Cameron have some newfound experience to build on, but following two huge road wins, there's a positive charge running throughout this team as they return home. 

"I'd say it's really high to be honest," Cameron said when asked about the team's confidence levels. "Even in practice today, the energy levels, they were probably the highest it's been ever, this whole season." 

"Everybody was coming together, flying around, all that stuff. So I'd say we're really confident right now, for sure." 

While Cameron was pleased with the opportunities presented last week, he quickly passed credit to his counterparts that helped make his play possible, starting with the offensive line. He spoke glowingly about the team's backfield and the trust built with Blake Shapen. Cameron also praised position coach Dallas Baker for keeping the receiving room together and ready for whenever their number gets called, no matter whose or when. 

"I'd say it definitely feels good, but shoot we're on to the next game now." 

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Kicker Noah Rauschenberg 

When it comes to playing Kansas State, if you're special teams aren't in order, you can find yourself in big trouble. But, after a rocky start of sorts, the Bears' special teams units have made positive strides during this three-game winning streak. Now, they'll face one of the more considerable challenges in all three phases this season. 

Baylor's kickoff specialist has quite the challenge ahead with the Wildcats' return team, headlined by Malik Knowles and Phillip Brooks on kickoffs, with Brooks also their main punt return threat. 

"He's just an elite player. He's very agile, great speed, and he just has the instinct that a lot of other guys really don't have," Rauschenberg gushed. "And just knows when to cut, how to cut, and just finds the open space and gets good yardage whenever he can." 

A surefire way to prevent Brooks, Knowles, or any other game-breaker from flipping or gaining momentum on kickoff returns is not to allow them the opportunity, which Rauschenberg has done effectively overall with 47 touchbacks on 62 kickoffs in 2022, and only one ball out of bounds. His touchback streak has also reached 16 consecutive kicks, which put a smile on his unsuspecting face when mentioned. 

After some struggles to begin the year, Rauschenberg has found continued success after being allowed to switch footballs. Initially, kickoffs used QB footballs until he asked and was granted permission to choose his own. And the rest is history. 

"We figured out that if I was able to choose my own ball — that I like — it produces a better kickoff. After the OSU game I got to choose my own ball," he said, "and it's been better production out of that and so I'm happy with how it's performed after OSU." 

Details matter. 

And so does home-field advantage. This team won three straight and back-to-back in Lubbock and Norman to return home as one of four legit contenders for two spots in Arlington. But, as the race tightens, someone is getting eliminated this weekend in Waco. 

"We always love playing at McLane. Our fans, we want them to come out strong," Rauschenberg said. "We know it's the first night game in a couple of years for us here. So, it's going to be fun just watching all the excitement, all the buzz. It's going to be a huge atmosphere, and we expect a lot and we hope that they can make a difference in this game." 

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Grinding Out Wins when the Game is not Pretty, the Bears are Stepping Up

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