WACO, Texas -- You have to give Ahmad Dixon credit: He isn’t afraid of saying what everyone else is thinking.
Baylor’s offense did what it almost always has done this season in a 71-7 victory over Iowa State on Saturday. But the senior safety knows this team won’t end up where it wants to be without seven more strong games from the Bears’ defense.
“We’re the only thing that can hold us back,” Dixon said. “Nothing else can hold us back or can stop us from winning this Big 12 championship except for us, and by us I mean our defense.”
As we come one week closer to crowning the champion of this conference, that issue is coming into focus in a lot more places than Waco. There’s plenty of bad offense being played right now in the Big 12. But who’s capable of producing an elite defense, one that can survive the tough games?
The tough games are coming for Baylor. Iowa State definitely wasn’t one of them, but this was an opponent that scored 35 on undefeated Texas Tech and 30 against Texas.
And here’s what Baylor’s once-maligned, oft-underestimated defense did: The Cyclones gained 74 yards and four first downs in the first half, averaged 1.2 yards per rush and didn’t score until the game’s final minute, against a squad of Baylor backups.
“My hat’s off to the defense,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. “I mean, holy cow, in my mind that’s a goose egg.”
We knew this team was really good at home, and the canyon-sized gap between Petty and the second-best quarterback in the Big 12 -- whoever that may be, we really have no idea -- grows wider every week.
For the fifth time this season, the Bears’ first-team offense didn’t need to play the fourth quarter. Baylor is one easy win against conference doormat Kansas away from a brutal five-game stretch: Oklahoma, Texas Tech in Dallas, at Oklahoma State, at TCU and Texas. It’s entirely possible Baylor is 12-0 on Dec. 8, but its defense will have to deliver.
Six games in, that unit has answered the bell and then some. Baylor is now ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in scoring defense, No. 2 in total defense, pass defense and sacks, No. 3 in interceptions and No. 4 in rush defense.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this kind of defense here,” said Baylor nickelback Sam Holl, who recorded an interception. “It’s been really fun. It’s fun to play in this defense and shut people down.”
But this wasn’t the only defense that rose to the occasion on Saturday. How about what Oklahoma did to Kansas, one week after completely collapsing against Texas? The Sooners fell behind 13-0 and then held Kansas to 65 yards in the game’s final three quarters, including just one completion for minus-2 yards, in a 34-19 win.
Oklahoma State has a quarterback problem again, but also a defense that didn’t give up a TCU touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter of a 24-10 win. The Pokes have the best turnover margin in the conference at plus-7.
Those are the three best scoring defenses in the conference. And then there’s 7-0 Texas Tech and its much-improved defense, and the Texas defense that plays better every week under new coordinator Greg Robinson.
At this point it’s going to be one of those five teams that wins the Big 12. Baylor has the best offense of the bunch, there’s no doubt about that, but can its defense thrive during that five-game gantlet to the finish line?
The Nos. 3, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 teams in the AP poll all went down on this week. The path has been paved for Baylor to jump from 12th to as high as No. 5 or No. 6 in the polls on Sunday.
Dixon, as outspoken a guy as you’ll find on this Baylor defense, can’t help but laugh when asked how far this unit has come. After all, just last year the Bears gave up an average of 50.4 points per game in their five losses.
“It’s very crazy how far we’ve come. That’s something that only we’ve seen coming,” Dixon said. “A lot of people did not expect that to come from us. But that’s something we expected in the offseason and were working on.
“This is what we want. We know what it takes to get there. We’ve been so close and yet so far away. Now we feel like we’re so close and we’re ... still so close. It’s all on us.”
Baylor got closer on Saturday, but so did a few other Big 12 defenses. Until an offense runs right through this Bears defense, the road to the conference title still runs through Waco.