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September 30, 2012

Culture of Discipline fuels A&M's resurgence

Where to begin?

Well, let's try this:

- Teams that turn over the ball do so because they are sloppy, make bad decisions, and lose focus after they do start turning it over.

Before the 2010 Texas game, I wrote about how Garrett Gilbert would turn over the ball and it would affect Texas to the point that the other team would go on a 20 to 30 point run. You saw the same thing with A&M last season -- A&M would turn the ball over which was the result of bad decisions as well as a lack of discipline. In addition, A&M would lose confidence because 1) they had experienced the negative consequences of other teams going on runs but also 2) knew that they would continue to turn over the ball because those issues were ingrained into the team.

The same things has happened with Arkansas this season and happened again today: Arkansas started having trouble hanging onto it (foreshadowing), turned it over on an interception, and then A&M promptly went on a 51-0 run.

- Tying this back to last season, we've talked all through the off season how A&M ranked in the 100's in turnover margin, penalties, big plays against, and red zone defense. These issues managed to totally derail a program that started the season in the top 10, had multiple NFL draft picks, finished high nationally in rush defense, sacks, and total offense.

One of our subscribers, jmlittle termed it a culture of discipline…or a lack thereof.

Today was a reflection that a culture of discipline is finally taking hold in College Station. In only it's fourth game under Kevin Sumlin and his new staff, A&M registered 0 turnovers, three penalties, gave up four plays over 20 yards (just one a touchdown), and allowed Arkansas just one score in five red zone opportunities. In addition, they are doing it with young players in many positions and veterans learning not just a new culture but a new system.

As an example of how the Aggies are benefiting from this, A&M was 18 points at halftime last season against Arkansas which proceeded to use all of those elements to come from behind and win 42-38. This season, A&M was up 17 over Arkansas at the half and won by 48.

As a result, A&M has now become a team that won't beat itself. People are going to have to work to win games against A&M instead of letting the Aggies do the work for them which has been a familiar refrain in College Station for over a decade.

- Has a team ever rung up a less meaningful 500+ yards of total offense than what Arkansas did? There was a time in the first and second quarters when the Hogs were moving A&M off the ball and protecting Tyler Wilson fairly well. Most people would have expected this before the season but not after the start that the two teams have had in 2011.

That lasted until Arkansas' first turnover and then a fundamentally sound defense asserted itself. A&M began to get off the ball up front, its linebackers flowed to the ball and maintained gap discipline, and its defensive backs kept people in front of them. As Arkansas fell further behind, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder attacked, using multiple fronts and blitzes to give Tyler Wilson different looks and put him in long yardage situations that eventually resulted in a couple of interceptions (turnovers that A&M had trouble generating so far this season). In particular, A&M's linebacking corps was very good in the short zones, keeping receivers in front of them and tackling them in space on third down.

In addition, A&M is beginning to develop depth. Younger players are beginning to appreciate what is expected of them. Prior to the season, safety Howard Matthews was not living up to expectations on and off the field and he was buried in the depth chart. Today, Matthews saw lots of actions and looked comfortable roaming the field at free safety, not only keeping people in front of him but filling cutback lanes in the running game.

Finally, A&M gave up just one long scoring play due to some below par tackling and by staying in a three deep look and giving up short gains, they made Arkansas work down the field and then slammed the door shut in the red zone with great execution. Unlike last year, there were no penalties, no blown coverages, no missed tackles, no overrunning plays -- everyone simply executed.

- We've talked since the season started about Johnny Manziel's progression as a quarterback, particularly in terms of him staying in the pocket and looking for receivers. Manziel spent the first and part of the second quarter running for big gains but he also had to deal with the Hogs simply staying in their rush lanes and not allowing him to run for first downs. After Arkansas' turnover, however, the light seemed to come on for Manziel in this regard. He finally has figured out that it's okay for him to buy time with his feet and let his receivers do most of the work running routes. He's seeing the middle of the field now, not just the outside, and delivering the ball to people down the field or where they can do something with it after the catch. His throws on screens were much more accurate as he has learned to keep his feet set and turn his body into the throw.

This is borne out by the fact that Ryan Swope had his best game of the season working the middle of the field (five receptions, 141 yards) as well as Thomas Johnson's production (five catches, 108 yards).

Oh, and Manziel still hasn't thrown a pick. Extraordinary discipline on his part.

- In the past three games, Kliff Kingsbury has displayed a tendency to take a quarter or so to figure out an opponent before he can make adjustments and the offense takes off. Today, Arkansas used the same defense that Florida did in the second half of the season opener with a four man rush, the rushers staying in their lanes, a couple of spies on Johnny Manziel near the line of scrimmage, and man coverage in the secondary. Although Arkansas did not have the athletes that Florida did, A&M did have possessions in the first quarter where they missed a field goal and had to punt because they Arkansas was able to keep Manziel in check and either force him to throw incompletions or tackle him short of a first down when he carried the ball.

After Steven Terrell's first interception, A&M started using more two back sets with TE Nehemiah Hicks. Although A&M did not necessarily run the ball well, the Aggies were able to use play action and use the extra blocker to better protect Manziel. This further slowed Arkansas' rush, made them more run conscious in the back seven, and allowed A&M's receivers more room to get open in the secondary.

Also, Ryan Swope was used down the field more often today. He's been effective on the seam route in the past and today on the 80 yard touchdown pass, Swope was the inside slot in a trips formation. A&M sent both outside receivers five yards down and then inside. The safety got caught up responding to these routes and could not react fast enough when Swope ran at him and then by him.

- Remember when tempo was going to be the scourge of the SEC? Today, it was Arkansas who ran 98 plays but couldn't generate any big ones. In contrast, A&M ran just 79 plays but averaged a whopping 9.1 yards per play.

- Arkansas coach John L. Smith literally gave up on the game with 2:42 to go in the first half and it may have caused his team to do so as well. Despite having an incompletion overturned on the field and facing just fourth and three near midfield with a defense that had already given up 20 points and over 300 yards, he punted. The decision to play field position and defense backfired when the ball went into the end zone for a touchback and A&M promptly scored in the next play.

- Ben Malena is not A&M's fastest or biggest back. However, the Cedar Hill product has emerged as its best back as he averaged 7.4 yards per rush, caught a touchdown pass, and blocked well in the screen game and pass protection.


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