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August 1, 2013

Aggies have developed a physical mindset

When Texas A&M and Missouri entered the SEC from the Big 12 for the 2012 season, there was discussion before the season about how the two teams would handle the transition from what was perceived to be a finesse league into a more physical one. The Big 12 was a spread league that threw the ball all over the place and emphasized quarterback play and offense. The SEC was said to be more of a defensive league and defenses win championships, especially national championships.

Most of all, the SEC was considered a nasty, physical league led by teams like Alabama and LSU that didn't just beat you but punished you. A&M and Missouri ran the spread and were warned that they would struggle in doing so; SEC defenses would hit their quarterbacks over and knock them out of games, their receivers wouldn't be able to get off the line, and their defenses weren't geared toward stopping I formation running games.

One of the newcomers thrived under those conditions; another one didn't. I asked Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore last summer about what A&M defensive line coach Terry Price (who had previously coached in the SEC) had taught he and his teammates about the league and he said that Price had emphasized to them over and over about being physical. He also said that head coach Kevin Sumlin had made that a point of emphasis as well.

Last year, A&M opened against Florida and on an early drive, A&M running back Ben Malena lowered his helmet, caught Florida safety Josh Evans under the chin and knocked him down. Evans left the game; Malena didn't. The Aggies also sacked Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel eight times and until late in the game contained the Gator's running attack. A&M wound up losing 20-17 but any questions about how they would fare in a physical environment were answered in force.

That night, Missouri hosted Georgia. The Tigers hung with the Bulldogs until the fourth quarter but proceeded to cough up the ball three times and got beaten 41-20. What's worse, they found out that the Big 12 lacked the size to deal with quarterback James Franklin in the running game but Georgia had no such issues and held him to 25 yards rushing. Worse, other teams proceeded to beat up Franklin as well and took away the physical component of Missouri's running attack.

The Aggies finished 11-2. The Tigers finished 5-7. One program understood that it needed to be physical and played like it; the other one didn't.

Yes, the preceding is an oversimplification and yes A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had much to do with the Aggies' success last season. Nonetheless, for all of the tangibles that I write about, no greater intangible had more to do with the way A&M played than that the Aggies were a physical football team. They were well coached, well conditioned, and didn't beat themselves but they also met force with violence, especially on defense. Being physical is a mindset and the Aggies acted like a bully even when they weren't the biggest team on the field. They weren't dirty but they were instigators. They popped Alabama in the mouth early and basically said "This may be your house but a football field is our home" and beat the national champions on their own turf.

Offensive linemen hit defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and he absorbed their blows and returned them; linebackers like Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart stepped into holes and met ball carriers with the intent of stopping them at the point of attack and not five yards downfield; safety Howard Matthews took off receiver's heads when he had an opportunity. Even the offense got into the act as evidenced by Malena's hit on Evans and Ryan Swope's blindside block against Mississippi State that leveled a Bulldog defender in the open field.

For all of the talk about A&M's spread offense, the Aggies don't play like spread teams are perceived to play because Kevin Sumlin and his staff won't let them. As a result, the Aggies don't give ground and physical play eventually translates into little things that eventually become part of a box score….a turnover due to a hit or a conversion on third and short because one lineman imposed his will on another. Like other parts of the game, Sumlin gets this and understands that being physical is as much of the game as playing mistake free football and being in better shape. Look at the Ole Miss game when Sean Porter stepped up and met a running back pad to pad to force to turn the ball over on downs so that A&M could score the winning touchdown on the next possession; one inch further back and Ole Miss holds on to the ball and wins the game. He used good technique but most of all he just wanted that part of the turf more than the runner and was willing to pop the other guy to win that battle.

Sumlin gets this part of the game because of his time on Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma. There's a reason that Oklahoma has been so successful against Texas over the years, often running them off the field even though the talent levels aren't often that disparate and it's a rivalry game for both teams. Mack Brown is a nice guy, he wants to be perceived as a nice guy, and his teams play like nice guys. Stoops' teams come out and hit Texas in the mouth and force turnovers and knock front seven people off the ball and the Horns act like Oklahoma isn't playing fair. There's a reason that Brown gets blown out by Stoops and Stoops almost never gets blown out by Brown; there's a reason he can't seem to beat Kansas State which has been coached for the majority of Brown's tenure by Bill Snyder. Snyder's teams aren't as talented as Brown's but they play with violence and Texas simply can't meet it.

Brown plays for national titles when he has quarterbacks who play physically and set a tone on and off the field like Vince Young and Colt McCoy; when he doesn't, his teams underachieve and he searches for reasons why when it's staring him in the face. Even when he had the chance to go to more of a pro style, smash mouth running game, he ultimately abandoned it when the problem wasn't that Texas won by running the zone read as much as it had quarterbacks who ran the zone read but more importantly set a physical tone on the field and in the weight room.

Regardless of talent level and technique, when you play hard and hit hard, good things happen to you and bad things start to happen to the other team. Because Sumlin gets that being physical is a part of the game as much as recruiting and coaching, A&M won't just be a talented underachiever and will gain the reputation you want as a team you don't want to play.

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