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September 23, 2013

Tarp's Monday Thoughts

-You've only got Johnny Manziel for nine more games (eight regular season plus one bowl game). Enjoy him and appreciate him while you can.

The greatest quarterback of his generation is a better player than he was last season because he is a more complete quarterback. He displayed that Saturday night while not extending a play escaping people 100 pounds bigger than he is while completing the most exciting 12 yard pass in NCAA history. Last year, SMU played everyone at the line of scrimmage and pressed A&M's wideouts which led to multiple long plays by both Manziel and his receivers. This year, SMU kept two safeties high to deny those plays and make A&M work down the field. Manziel adjusted and took what was given to him, running the ball against those safeties and throwing it in front of them so his receivers could make yardage after the catch. He didn't put up nearly the same amount of yardage himself as last year but still put up five touchdowns in an efficient two plus quarters of football and still generated several plays of over 13 yards. Moreover, he played against SMU with the same unbridled love of the game and preparation that he displays in games versus better opponents. It's no coincidence that with him at quarterback A&M again scored the first time it had the ball which it's done in seemingly every game he's ever started.

Don't ever, ever, ever, take him for granted.

-It's interesting to read the boards and talk to people after Saturday's night's game versus SMU which A&M won comfortably, led by roughly four touchdowns at halftime, and didn't play its starting quarterback after the first series of the third quarter.

You've got optimists and you've got pessimists and you can make a case for either depending on you point of view. However, what everyone has to stand back and do is realize that any analysis of this year's team is going to be colored by a different set of expectations than those surrounding last year's team. Prior to the 2012 season, people generally thought that A&M would finish somewhere between 6-6 and 8-4. They were thrilled by losing to a top ten team at home by less than a touchdown (Florida) and excited by blowouts of SMU and South Carolina State early in the season. It wasn't until Johnny Manziel started putting outrageous numbers, the defense performed credibly, and the Aggies came from behind to beat Ole Miss that people started going "Hey, something special is going on here".
Even then, no one would have predicted that A&M would upset the national champions, have a Heisman Trophy winner, and finish in the top five.

This year, A&M started out in the top ten and was considered to be a national title contender on the strength of returning said Heisman Trophy winner, improved pieces around him on offense, a defensive staff that worked wonders with a defense that was considered undersized up front and young in the secondary last season, and a favorable home schedule which included Alabama. But the Aggies' defense hasn't come close to living up to expectations and A&M lost to Alabama last week primarily because of it. Thus, we're all looking at this team through different colored glasses now than we did before the season or even two weeks ago.

Take the SMU Saturday night for starters. A&M came out, jumped on top 14-0, recovered an onside kick, and were in the red zone poised to go on top 21-0. There seemed to be no let down from the loss to Alabama in terms of preparation or intensity and a revamped defense was playing better. In fact, the Aggies displayed few of the signs associated with a letdown except in the offensive line where there numerous penalties.

Then, A&M turned over the ball and SMU promptly drove down and kicked a field goal. Mind you, that sequence of events had no real influence on the outcome of the game because A&M never was threatened nor had any reason to feel threatened by a SMU team that had nearly lost at home to FCS program Montana State two weeks.

Even so, A&M's defensive struggles (for just a possession) against a really bad team and a turnover in the red zone for the third straight week seemed to take something out of the team and the crowd. After that possession, both appeared to be less focused. Things didn't get any better when the extra point failures from Christmas' past made an appearance in the second quarter and even changing out the source of those frustrations…the kicker…didn't help. A bad snap on a fourth down play resulted in another failed red zone opportunity and SMU again drove down and kicked a field goal after accomplishing pretty close to nothing on its other possessions.

By the end of the third quarter, A&M led 39-6 which isn't much different than the 41-3 lead it had at the same point in 2012, especially because both times A&M scored six touchdowns. Had Johnny Manziel played longer Saturday night, the margin would have been even greater than it was. However, because of the burden of our expectations (fans, media, people in the program itself), no one seemed to enjoy the 2013 SMU game as much.

-The biggest difference between this year's team and last year's team is simple: the 2012 defense controlled games because it could control opponent's running games. It either kept A&M in games or allowed them to go on runs and put the game out of reach early.

Saturday night, personnel changes put more playmakers on the field which meant more hitting, more turnovers, and more people around the ball. Right now, A&M has a better defense than what it had two weeks ago. Some things got fixed in the back seven but there's still people in the front line who are productive when they are out there in limited amounts of playing time that aren't getting as many snaps as others who aren't showing up on the stat sheet.

No matter what, however, this year's unit is going to have to play a certain way because of personnel deficiencies, especially against the pass. It lacks a Damontre Moore or Von Miller who could get pressure and caused other teams to scheme for them by doubling them, keeping a back in and out of a pass route, or rolling to the opposite side. Without hurried throws or limited play calling options, quarterbacks can hold the ball and compete passes to convert third downs against corners that are playing off of them to prevent a big play. Even with varied coverages and blitzes, that's not going to change although having better personnel in there should limit big plays after catches.

However, controlling a game defensively starts with stalemating and then making plays on the opponent's side of the ball in the run game. In the last two games, A&M has registered just three tackles for loss and even SMU averaged 5.5 yards per carry with a young offensive line and starting running back Traylon Shead out with injury. The Aggies need to find someone who can use technique/athleticism to shed or beat zone/reach blocks to make plays in the backfield and free up linebackers. That way, its safeties don't get caught in a run/pass bind which opens up play action down the field. It's not going to happen on every run but by doing this the Aggies can trot out the same formula that they did Saturday night and that they did early last season…scoring touchdowns, making people drive down the field, and getting stops in the red zone …they'll still be playing in no worse than a New Years' Day bowl by avoiding upsets.

-Finally, A&M gets into the heart of its SEC schedule Saturday night versus Arkansas which is where all of the previous paragraphs come into play. Prior to the start of the season, expectations were that this would be an easy win for A&M given its offense and Arkansas' personnel deficiencies. However, Arkansas isn't the same team as a year ago when the John L. Smith Circus pulled into town. With Bret Bielema coming in from Wisconsin, the Hogs look like Badgers south, even down to the red uniforms. They run the ball with big backs behind a young but big offensive line (everyone except starting tackle Grady Ollison is over 310 pounds) and go play action off of that. On defense, the Razorbacks have a good front four with defensive end Chris Smith (5.5 sacks) and a pair of tackles that weigh 310 pounds plus and start mostly upperclassmen. They run trick plays on offense and special teams to generate big plays and score points. They play hard, hit hard, don't turn it over, keep penalties under control.

Fayetteville is not an easy place to play, particularly at night. In the SWC days, A&M won in 1976 and didn't win again until 1990 and both of those Arkansas teams that they beat were .500 outfits or worse. In addition, it's A&M's first road game of the season and the Aggies really struggled in their road opener versus Ole Miss last season. Bielema is pointing toward this game as a turnaround game for his program so he's going to have a lot of recruits and a vocal crowd.

Regardless of whether or not starting quarterback Brandon Allen returns this week (he was injured against Southern Mississippi and didn't play in the loss to Rutgers), Arkansas is not equipped to drop back and throw the ball if they get behind early due to A&M's typical great start. However, A&M's issues in stopping the run could play into Arkansas's hands in two ways. First, the Razorbacks can set up their play action game off of a successful running game. Two, we make too much out of time of possession and number of plays run in a football game. It's really more about the number of possessions that you have in a football game and what you do on those possessions. By running the ball successfully, Arkansas doesn't just keep the ball out of A&M's hands but more importantly reduces the number of possessions for A&M to score. The Aggies had 29 possessions in their first two games; in the Alabama loss where they failed to stop the run or make stops in the red zone, the Aggies only had 12 possessions. Fewer possessions mean fewer points for A&M and keeps the game manageable for the Hogs.

Arkansas does have a lot of vulnerabilities. Their linebackers have significant coverage issues which means that A&M's slots should have a big day. Their offensive line is big but not athletic and had issues dealing with quickness up front (Rutgers is somewhat undersized and largely held Arkansas' running game in check). Their defensive tackles are big but pay the price if they have to play a lot of snaps; they were worn down, playing high, and getting knocked off the ball by the end of the Rutgers game. They gave up a 24 point lead by allowing big returns in the kicking game.

Bielema's goal has to be to keep Arkansas in the game going into the fourth quarter. To do that, he's either going to have to avoid a good start by A&M or weather it. He's going to have to get a great game out of Arkansas' front four (a pretty good unit that will test A&M's offensive line) and he's going to have run the ball successfully. We'll examine the chances of both in greater detail in subsequent articles this week as well the AY podcast. but even then Arkansas shouldn't be able to match A&M score for score for 60 minutes unless they dominate in both categories and totally negate an offense that has scored touchdowns on 27 of its first 49 possessions to start the season.


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