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September 15, 2013

Mark's morning after game thoughts

Here's my thoughts on yesterday's game (because nobody else would want them):

Offense:

Let's start with the guy who makes it all go: Johnny Manziel. He tallied 562 yards of total offense yesterday against one of the nation's best defenses -- that's more than any SEC player in history has piled up against another SEC team. His 464 passing yards are a school record. He destroyed every defensive scheme Kirby Smart threw at him while putting together a case for a second Heisman and compiling a pretty good NFL audition tape. After the game, all of his teammates were talking about how his leadership helped them keep fighting when the Aggies were down 35-14. An argument can be made that his two interceptions were the difference in the game, but that would be really short-sighted; only A&M could come back and make yesterday a dogfight, and that's because Johnny Football was the triggerman.

The offensive line and running backs had an uneven day. When A&M lost control of the game in the second quarter, the offensive line was being physically manhandled by Alabama's front seven and there was no room for the backs to run. In the third and fourth quarters, as A&M mounted its rally, the line frequently blew the Crimson Tide defenders off the ball. Ben Malena got some hard-fought yards inside the tackles in the third quarter when the Aggies regained their offensive rhythm. There's no question he's the best running back on the football team. Until Trey Williams returns, it looks like Tra Carson is going to be the guy who gets the backup carries; Brandon Williams only got two carries for 6 yards. Yesterday was a learning experience for linemen like Germain Ifedi, Cedric Ogbuehi (at tackle, at least) and Mike Matthews. They endured some rough moments, but improved as the game went on.

After three games, one thing is clear: A&M's preference, when running the football, is to run behind Ifedi. When Ben Malena had his best carries in the third quarter, he ran behind the redshirt freshman.

Mike Evans is a MAN. Seven catches for 279 yards and a score against Alabama's secondary is astounding. He was too big, too strong and too fast for a good group of defensive backs to handle. He's the best wideout in the SEC and maybe the best in college football. He's probably the most underrated player in the sport right now.

When reporters were asking why Manziel didn't target Evans more in the second quarter, it was kind of comical. That was when the offensive line was struggling and he was running for his life. Makes it a little tougher to find a guy, no?

Credit to Malcome Kennedy and Derel Walker is also required. Kennedy appears to be unfazed by the idea of playing the Tide -- in fact, he gives them fits. With his hat trick Saturday, four of his five career touchdown receptions have come against Alabama. He ran free through the middle of the field for large portions of yesterday's game (unfortunately, Manziel had trouble getting the ball to him) and his routes on the three scoring passes were perfect. Walker had an excellent game as well, making things happen after the catch when Alabama's defenders would play off him. It was easily the best game of his career and is hopefully a sign of things to come.

Ricky Seals-Jones returned yesterday and was targeted a couple of times, but he didn't seem to be 100% yet.

We said during the spring and summer that JaQuay Williams was struggling with route running, and that was painfully true Saturday. His confusion and then quitting on the fade pattern from Manziel cost A&M seven points, a turnover and a score at the other end. His talent is tantalizing, but until he figures out how to run routes, he's good for go patterns and nothing else.

Before the season began, we wondered if it would be possible to replace the production of Ryan Swope, EZ Nwachukwu and Thomas Johnson. It is. Could the offensive line hold up? It can. Would Manziel be better? He is. This may sound bombastic, but this offense may not only be better than last year's, but one of the most potent college football has ever seen.

Defense:

This is not nearly as pretty. Through the summer, during practices and scrimmages, we reporters (in our limited time) saw a unit that worked well together, was cohesive and minimized mistakes against a very effective offensive group.

Once the season began, and especially yesterday, the wheels have come off the wagon. There's no other way to describe it. Players who performed in 2012 and in camp are not; players who have been pressed into duty have not been up to snuff and they are being annihilated in all aspects of the game. This morning, my wife asked me who I was not disappointed in on defense and I came up with Kirby Ennis and Deshazor Everett. That's it.

Let's start with the defensive line. Ennis held his own fairly well against double teams yesterday, but it really didn't matter; they simply ran away from him. Alabama and T.J. Yeldon dominated the edges and could run outside all day. If they ran inside, they targeted Alonzo Williams, eliminated him and were into the second level. Alabama averaged 3.9 yards BEFORE CONTACT yesterday, meaning they were way past the line of scrimmage before A&M even touched them. Julien Obioha had a few moments yesterday, but was largely contained; Cyrus Kouandjio should have sent an apology letter to Gavin Stansbury's family for the one block where he didn't just knock Stansbury down, he sent him to the ground spinning. It was embarrassing. One guy who could have made a difference, due to his very physical nature, is Isaiah Golden. Putting him in with Ennis would have made things a bit tougher for Alabama. But, sadly, the loss of his two-month-old daughter made this a painful week for him. I respect him for coming back and being there with his teammates after such a horrible loss.

Steven Jenkins was back yesterday and he did make a difference: 13 tackles and a forced fumble. He also had A&M's ONLY tackle for loss. Donnie Baggs, who looked solid all through the spring and into the summer, has not shown the same level of capability now that the season has started. He is consistently timid, slow to diagnose plays and frequently runs himself out of position. That can't continue. Either Darian Claiborne, Tommy Sanders or Jordan Mastrogiovanni -- who didn't have a swell game himself in his first start -- are going to have to step in. There are too many blunders happening at the second level from experienced players.

In the secondary, Everett really is a top-notch corner. He did a really good job on Amare Cooper yesterday, taking away the preseason All-SEC wideout for large periods of the game. Of course, A.J. McCarron, who had an eternity to throw the ball due to an amazing lack of a pass rush, just threw to everyone else. Devante Harris really struggled in the first half and was burned frequently, so they put in Tramain Jacobs. Jacobs regressed to his 2012 form and blew an assignment that left Clay Honeycutt in one-on-one coverage with Kenny Bell, and that was a 51-yard touchdown after a missed tackle. Howard Matthews, noted for his aggression in past years, has looked confused and, like other guys on the defense, timid. Honeycutt is simply overmatched. If Mark Snyder had options to replace them both, he probably would -- but he doesn't.

Outside of Everett, I thought Toney Hurd had a pretty good game. He played with purpose and was a solid tackler. He played like a senior leader should. It just wasn't nearly enough.

If you want to criticize Snyder and his staff, you can -- some decisions, like putting in Daeshon Hall to go one-on-one with Kouandjio in the red zone and not putting in some of the athletic underclassmen didn't make a lot of sense. But let's face it: you're supposed to see improvement from players who performed last year and guys you've invested time and effort in. If they can't handle it, then you need to replace them. But who is going to replace Alonzo Williams? Stansbury? Matthews or Honeycutt? Maybe Ivan Robinson can help on the inside, but we already know the answers to the rest -- there ARE no answers. He's making due with the talent he has, until new, better talent arrives.

This is not what I expected from this defense. Not at all. It's painfully disappointing.

Special Teams:

Drew Kaser is the best punter in college football through the first month of 2013. He averaged 54 yards a punt yesterday with a long of 64. He's remarkable.

Brandon Williams, returning kicks for Trey Williams, muffed a kickoff and buried A&M at their two. LaQuvionte Gonzalez replaced him and didn't do a whole lot either. Trey is very much needed here, until Quiv adjusts to the college game.

Taylor Bertolet made all his extra points and his kickoffs were pretty good until one that really mattered, when A&M cut the lead to 42-35. He then promptly kicked the ball out of bounds, which was a critical mistake.


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