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September 16, 2013Looking Back
-I went back yesterday morning and realized that in my post game write up that I had focused on schemes and trends to the detriment of a couple of players who had two of the greatest days in A&M football history. That was inexcusable on my part and I ask for forgiveness from you guys, Johnny Manziel, and Mike Evans. The following is an attempt to rectify that error.
We've become so accustomed to watching Johnny Manziel do amazing things that we take it for granted even while we're watching it. Saturday, Manziel's two interceptions and A&M's loss to top ranked Alabama overshadowed what well may have been the best quarterbacking performance we'll ever see at A&M given what was at stake and the level of competition.
What we saw goes far beyond the numbers which we didn't even realize the enormity of until the game was over 562 yards total offense which is second in A&M and SEC history to the 576 yards he put up against Louisiana Tech last year. In fact, he owns the top three games in A&M history. His 464 yards passing was a school record.
However, let's look at a few things to put those numbers in their proper perspective.
First, he rang up those numbers against top ranked Alabama and Nick Saban. Saban is the penultimate defensive coach of this era because of his schemes and ability to recruit the talent to run them. Not only that, his play in A&M's victory last season versus the Tide in Tuscaloosa not only meant that Saban, the Tide, and the fan base had circled this game as a revenge game, both personally and professionally. Saban's reputation had been damaged last November by Manziel and the Tide had lost at home in front of a sellout crowd and this past weekend was the game that Manziel was going to pay. It was a fluke that Manziel rang up over 300 yards total offense and 29 points and ran around and through a Alabama team that wasn't prepared.
However, this time would be different. Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, and the Tide's players had watched film and schemed and their brilliant minds and athletic ability for nearly a year and they had put a target on Manziel's back. In addition, Manziel had a tumultuous off season as opposed to the discipline and process that characterized the off season of Nick Saban's program. Saban and his players would bring order to the chaos that Manziel had introduced into their lives on their way to their fourth national title in five years and their instrument was a defense that annually ranked near the top of the country in all major categories and did so again after a season opening win over Virginia Tech.
Second, the schemes that Saban threw at Manziel Saturday weren't much different than those he usually employed. In the past, Alabama had faced great quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and Aaron Murray and still had focused on stopping the run by loading up the box and manning up outside receivers up and down the field. They included blitzes and some zone coverages but basically Alabama was going to play Manziel at the line of scrimmage and choke everything off.
As a result, the A&M staff put the offensive burden on Manziel in more ways than one would have ever imagined. Manziel had improved as a quarterback in the off season as he had worked on his footwork and staying in the pocket to throw the ball down the field rather than taking off. However, with Alabama loading up the box as usual, the A&M knew that in order to run the ball that they needed to outnumber the Tide themselves. Thus, Manziel became a primary ball carrier on counters with any backs blocking for him which ran contrary to how A&M used him in the first two games. In addition, the Aggies went to five receiver sets to make it more difficult for Alabama to use its pattern match defenses which put even more burden on Manziel to put the Ags in the correct play and make the right throws and reads.
Finally, Manziel carried all of the hopes and dreams of a football program and fan base on his shoulders. A&M was a top ten program which didn't have a top ten caliber defense but unlike so many times before the Aggies had a transcendent player who could overcome all obstacles before a home crowd and win the type of game that A&M had lost so many times in the past.
With all of that burden falling on his shoulders, Manziel went out and staked the Aggies to a 14-0 lead just like he did last season on the road. If linebacker C.J. Mosely's job truly was to spy on Manziel as he said it was before the game, then Mosley was captured, blindfolded, and shot well before the first quarter was over.
A couple of turnovers slowed him down and Alabama's pass rush slowed him down for a while and the Aggies found themselves facing a 35-14 deficit but Manziel wouldn't quit. He ran in the first quarter on designed running plays for first downs and in the fourth quarter on the improvised plays that made him famous. He attacked one of the cornerstones of Alabama's defense press man coverage on the outside receivers like no one had ever done before, completing 12 passes to outside receivers Mike Evans and Derel Walker. He twice brought A&M out from the shadow of its own goal posts, once on a 95 yard touchdown pass to Evans. He just kept coming, throwing for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to bring A&M to within seven points and an onside kick from one last shot at the Tide.
Even before the end of the game, Alabama fans on message boards had stopped talking about revenge or last year being a fluke and were openly discussing how glad they were that they didn't have to face Manziel again (assuming he goes pro after this season). Media in attendance at Kyle Field who had ripped him for his off season antics forgot that the summer had ever existed and were writing reams of copy about his enormous abilities after what they had witnessed in person.
He put up more yards than anyone else ever had against an Alabama defense, put up superior numbers to those he put up the year before with an entire program gunning for him, and basically showed that even the best defensive coach of this generation in college football was no match for his skills.
In a defeat that was largely due to the play of A&M's defense, Manziel probably gained more respect than he could have in victory.
-In addition, I had written a piece the Friday night before the game asking how A&M was going to replace Ryan Swope's 134 yards and 11 catches from the year before and if Mike Evans could do what so many outside receivers had failed to do before beat the Tides' corners on press coverage up and down the field. The standard was former South Carolina receiver Ashton Jeffrey's 127 yards in 2010 and Evans simply obliterated it. He caught deep passes of 32 and 35 yards on A&M's first possession and added a 34 yarder on the second. He later added a 95 yard catch and run in which he managed to outrun or outmuscle two Alabama defenders on third and long. At 6 foot 5 and 225 pounds, Evans is the type of big physical receiver who has the deceptive speed, the hands, the strength, and run after catch ability to defeat Alabama's man coverage like no one else and was the reason that the Aggies generated more explosive plays in the passing game than they did in their 2012 win. He wound up with seven catches for a school record 279 yards and a touchdown and due to his play Alabama never was able to control A&M's outside receivers which is one of the foundations of their defensive philosophy.
Without Evans, there would have been no 562 yards by Manziel or five touchdown pass performance.
The hot topic of conversation during the hours following A&M's defeat to Alabama was the performance of the Aggie defense. The current numbers are truly staggering: A&M is currently giving up 6.0 yards per carry after Saturday's game which means that a team is getting a first down every couple of rushes against the Aggies. There's simply no need to throw the ball. In fact, if ESPN's stats people are are right, A&M gave up an average of 3.9 yards a run BEFORE first contact last Saturday and recorded just one tackle for loss versus Alabama.
When you can't stop the run that also means you probably can't rush the passer because you're not athletic enough to play on the opponent's side of the ball. The Aggies rank 86th nationally in sacks. With a lack of pressure, that means quarterbacks can go through all of their options to find an open receiver (opponents are completing 58.5% of their passes) or can hold it and go downfield (A&M is giving up 8.4 yards an attempt). In addition, defenders who get put in one on one situations in space too often don't hold up well either defensing plays or tackling; A&M has given up 17 explosive plays of over 20 yards this season.
As a result, the Aggies rank in the 100's nationally in all four major defensive categories (rush defense, total defense, scoring defense, and pass efficiency defense). Those are numbers that we haven't seen since Mie Sherman's 2008 and 2009 units which (like this one) played a number of underclassmen and thus suffered from a lack of physical maturity and experience. We've all talked about the defense has suffered from multiple suspensions against Rice and Sam Houston and even into the Alabama game but it's apparent that A&M is missing front seven veterans Spencer Nealy, Damontre Moore, Sean Porter, and Jonathan Stewart no matter who takes their place.
The biggest question at this point right now is this: is there anyone on the roster that can do better? You can make a case that guys like Isaiah Golden (who leads the defensive tackles in stops behind the line), Jay Arnold, Darian Claiborne (led the team in tackles in week one), and Tommie Sanders (tied for the team lead in tackles for losses) should be playing far more than what they are. They've been noticeably better than the people playing ahead of them so even without statistics the average fan is wondering why they aren't out there more.
However, personnel management is the only real issue. One of the underrated aspects of A&M's defense last season was the play of the aforementioned veterans they weren't all Southeastern Conference performers and the Aggies didn't rank in the top half of the conference in many categories but they stopped people consistently and didn't give up big plays (three of the four wound up on NFL rosters). That's the kind of effect that upperclassmen have and unless you are replacing upperclassmen with upperclassmen, there's going to be a fall off. There's no question that the youngsters can't do any worse and they need the experience to get better faster so you might as well go ahead and play them and the failure to so is puzzling. Nonetheless, when you don't have a defense that can control games like A&M's did last year, you're doomed to have to win shootouts.
-Fortunately, the Aggies may well have the best offense in the country. They scored 42 points on Alabama Saturday and to put that number in perspective, it's the most that Alabama has given up in the Nick Saban era (in fact, it's the most since 2003). After ranking in the top five nationally in all four major defensive categories during Saban's tenure and again after their opener versus Virginia Tech for the 2013 season, Alabama now ranks in the bottom half of the NCAA in those four categories.
Yes, all of that that just happened to one of the great recruiters and defensive coaches in college football history.
Not only that, A&M's 42 points are the fewest they've scored since the Alabama game last year. Given the quality of the opposition and who's left on A&M's schedule, it's hard to see anyone holding A&M under 50 except LSU and even though the Aggies' defense has enormous issues, there's really no equipped to out score them other than an Ole Miss. That still translates to 10 wins and a New Year's Day bowl at worst. At best, the Aggies simply find a way to outscore LSU in Baton Rouge and still work their way into a BCS bowl. You don't like having a defense that can't control games because that normally means that you could lose any of them but with this offense this season stacks up as being alternately exciting and frustrating at the same time.
-Finally, this season was supposed to be a season that A&M finally broke thought nationally and became a viable national title contender. It had the transcendent player and a favorable schedule, even getting Alabama at home. That dreams came crashing down over the weekend but A&M still has a lot to play for. Nothing translates successfully in recruiting like winning and it's imperative that A&M continue to win games and stay in the top ten. There have been several A&M teams that have had crushing early season losses that have righted the ship. The 1976 outfit was coming off devastating losses to end the 1975 campaign and lost twice early but won out and finished the season ranked seventh in the country. A&M won conference titles in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1998 but in all but the 1992 season lost a non conference game that could have derailed the season. Instead, they stayed focused and achieved the highest possible goal they could outside of playing for a national title.
I've always said that you win championships with defense and particularly because you can stop the run. A&M may not win any championships this season but in their second season of both Kevin Sumin's tenure and their membership in the SEC, they are building a program that will complete every year for a conference title which means that they will be a national title contender along the way.
This team has to continue to win games to make that possible.
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