By STEPHEN HAWKINS
WACO, Texas— Baylor senior safety Ahmad Dixon takes a deep breath and has the same thought each time he gets to the sideline after a defensive stop.
“I’m just like, Wow, this is really us, this is who we are,” Dixon said.
While often overlooked because of all the outrageous numbers put up by their high-scoring offense, the fourth-ranked Bears also have the Big 12’s best defense.
With seven senior starters who have learned third-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s system and a tenacious approach, Baylor is allowing only 15.4 points and 306 total yards a game. That is best in the league and top 10 nationally for a group that gave up 37 points and nearly 500 yards a game while among the nation’s 10-worst defenses the previous two seasons.
“Having knowledge, and that’s something that we have,” Dixon said, explaining the difference. “You can go out there and you can play fast, you can play physical and you can play fearless because you’re not out there thinking. You’re not worrying about anything. You’re just playing ball.”
That vastly improved defense is a big reason why the Bears are 8-0 for the first time in school history.
“They don’t get enough praise,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said.
The Bears (8-0, 5-0 Big 12), fifth in the BCS standings, play Texas Tech (7-3, 4-3) in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on Saturday night. They have a school-record 12-game winning streak.
Baylor passed its most significant test so far with a 41-12 victory last week over then-No. 12 Oklahoma. While the final score got lopsided, the Sooners had their fewest yards (237) over an 85-game span since 2007 and were held in check as the Bears offense got off to an uncharacteristically sputtering start. Oklahoma lost yards on eight plays and gained nothing or only 1 yard on 11 other snaps.
The Bears allowed more than 500 yards eight times last season, including 807 to West Virginia in that wild 70-63 loss. The fewest they gave up was 342, a number higher than their average this season.
Bennett was Pittsburgh’s interim head coach preparing for a bowl game at the end of the 2010 season when he got a call from Baylor coach Art Briles, whose team had just played in its first bowl 16 years.
Briles told Bennett that the Bears were going to be really good on offense, and that they could be a special team with a comparable defense. Bennett took the job, given control of the defense and recruiting the players for it.
“What he’s brought is stability and experience. He’s a tireless worker that’s very driven to succeed,” said Briles, the mastermind of an offense that has still thrived with different quarterbacks in both seasons since Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III went to the NFL.
During his first spring, Bennett wrote down a list of deficiencies on defense, and it was a lengthy list for the former SMU head coach now at his eighth different school as defensive coordinator. Previous stops included LSU, Texas A&M, TCU and Kansas State.
“I say this with all honesty, I’ve done this as long as anybody that’s doing it today and those two years, that year-and-a-half, getting to where we got … might have been my best coaching job,” said Bennett, in his 36th consecutive season as a coach. “We were able to get crucial stops, the kids bought in.”
Baylor has more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes allowed (eight). They average nine tackles for loss, second among FBS teams, and also lead the Big 12 with three sacks a game.
Combine that stout defense with the big-play offense, and the Bears are winning by an average margin of 45.6 points a game — that difference is more than any other Big 12 team scores per game. They lead the league allowing only 174 yards passing per game, and are third in rushing defense (132 yards per game).
Defensive end Terrance Lloyd, called “Pops” by his teammates because of his team-high 38 career starts, admits that Bennett’s system “was confusing at first” and is hard, but certainly works for the Bears.
Eddie Lackey, a linebacker with a knack for big plays, said players need to be strong-minded to play for Bennett in the Bears’ defense.
“You’ve got to have a long memory in a sense of remembering what to do, but short memory as in you’re going to get yelled out, you’re going to get screamed at,” Lackey said. “You need to clear that and just forget about it. … He’s only trying to make you better and he’s going to pat you on the back and ask you how your family’s doing after practice.”