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September 30, 2013

Tarp's Monday Thoughts

There are a couple of emerging trends regarding the way that teams are playing Texas A&M on both offense and defense in the last couple of games and I think that these trends may carry forward into the season.

-We talked before, during, and after the Alabama game about how the Tide liked to play man free coverage in the secondary. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans proceeded to carve up Alabama's scheme in two different ways. First, Manziel got great protection and was able to get the ball down the field to Evans on seven occasions for 279 yards who represented a mismatch for any number of cornerbacks. Manziel overall was 28 of 39 for 464 yards and five touchdowns. Second, by playing man in the secondary, Manziel could drop back, scan the field, and take off while Alabama's defenders were chasing A&M's receivers and providing him with running lanes as he gained 98 yards rushing. Overall, the Aggies rolled up 628 yards on perhaps the country's best defense and certainly one of the better defensive minds in college football with plays that filled highlight reels to be played on Sportscenter.

Any defensive coordinator watching game film knew that they could find themselves on highlights as well if they provided Manziel and Evans similar opportunities, especially because their defenses weren;t nearly as good as Alabama's. As a result, SMU came out with two high safeties and tried to keep everything underneath. Manziel still ran for 102 yards and threw for another 244 yards due to the Mustangs' lack of talent but kept highlight plays to a minimum. The only time that SMU really went into man coverage early on, Manziel and Evans recognized it and Evans caught a 46 yard post route.

Arkansas used pretty much the same schemes this past Saturday. On the first play of the game, Manziel and Evans caught Arkansas in man coverage again and hit a 49 yarder. After that, Arkansas played three deep coverage with their corners deep and more defenders at the line of scrimmage. Manziel couldn't go deep but he found Derel Walker (seven receptions for 81 yards) and others where they could run after the catch. Manziel also ran the ball but not as well as he had against SMU.

In the second half, Arkansas stayed in cover two to prevent any big plays and stay in the game as they continued to move the ball on A&M. Even though the Aggies continually used two backs or two tights and a back to outnumber Razorback defenders at the line of scrimmage, Arkansas didn't bring their safeties up in run support. A&M became patient and ran the ball versus that look like you are supposed to; Aggie backs reeled off four gains of 20 yards or more and ended up with 278 yards rushing. In addition, despite the bad weather Saturday night, the Aggies did not turn over the ball nor did Arkansas rarely put sufficient pressure on them to make them do so.

Thus, a pattern is emerging for opposing defenses: they are playing two high safeties in order to prevent explosive plays like A&M generated against Alabama. It will cause less embarrassment for defensive coordinators and keep their teams in games against A&M's defense. While these schemes are cutting down on Manziel's and Evans' highlights and Manziel's yardage is down from earlier in the season, A&M is still able to gain yards and score points because it's turned more of the offense over to its backs and is not being pressured enough to turn it over.

-When Alabama fell behind 14-0 against A&M a few weeks ago, Nick Saban did something no one else saw coming. He realized that his vaunted defense couldn't contain the Aggies'offense and if he didn't start trying to score right then and there that A&M would leave his team in the dust. Alabama came out and ran play action up and down the field to get back in the game and then turned to a more balanced attack once they gained the lead. Nonetheless, Alabama was much more aggressive and took more risks down the field than people assumed that they would in order to try to match A&M score for score instead of just running the ball and keeping the defense off the field as Alabama has done in the past under Saban.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema also isn't a noted proponent of high risk football, having built the Razorbacks so far in the image of his Wisconsin teams of the past few years - good running backs, big offensive lines, lots of running and play action passing down the field. It was thought at first that injured Quarterback Brandon Allen wouldn't be able to return for the A&M game from a separated shoulder but Bielema brought him back and then proceeded to unleash him. Again, although most of Arkansas' passing game was play action, the Hogs threw the ball 36 times and ran it just 30 times. They took multiple shots down the field against A&M's man coverage as well (tight end Hunter Henry had 109 yards on four catches) and did this despite the fact that they averaged 6.7 yards per carry on the ground.

So, despite the fact that the Southeastern Conference is known as a power running league in which teams run the ball in part to keep opposing offenses off the field, other teams are adjusting to the Mike Leach/Johnny Manziel conundrum as best as they can. They've given up thoughts of trying to stop A&M's offense and are throwing the ball around themselves and making every effort to score points to keep up even though they're not equipped to do it. This is what the Big 12 went through with Mike Leach and eventually that brand of ball took over the conference. However, in order to do that, A&M will have to maintain similar production out of Manziel's replacements in the future. Most schools don't think that's going to happen as they are not hiring coaches with a philosophy similar to that of Kevin Sumlin. There's also something else that has to happen and we'll go into it in the next paragraph.

-I had the opportunity to watch LSU at Georgia Saturday and a Big 12 game broke out. The Bulldogs prevailed in an exciting 44-41 contest that featured numerous lead changes but more importantly featured two teams with honest to God quarterbacks that didn't just hand the ball off and throw only when necessary. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray threw for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns Saturday even though the Bulldogs averaged 5.4 yards a carry. Then again, he wasn' even the best quarterback on the field as LSU's Zach Mettenberger threw for 372 yards, averaged ten yards an attempt, and three touchdowns himself. Both quarterbacks operated out of the spread, stood in there against pressure, carried the burden of play calls, and got the ball down the field. Mettenberger carried the bigger load for most of the afternoon as the Tigers' ground game didn't really get going until the second half and even Jeremy Hill only wound up with 86 yards.

It was a game in stark contrast to most of those you've seen in the league the past few years where both teams tried to run the ball, draw the other team up against the run, and then throw it over their heads. You know those games: one team runs the ball and wins; the other can't and then doesn't know what to do, flailing around like an upside down turtle on a busy street. However, new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron came in and took the time to do something that most programs seemingly don't want to do: develop his quarterback. He rebuilt Mettenberger from the feet up, improving his footwork and then his delivery. Mettenberger is also hanging tough in the pocket and he has a couple of very good receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham who combined for 274 yards. In past years, LSU would have been that turtle because they couldn't run the ball (their offensive line starts five underclassmen) and their rebuilt defense couldn't stop the run and blew multiple coverages in the secondary; they would have simply gotten blown out. Instead, they made a game of it.

The SEC has been a league bereft of quarterback development but not quarterbacks themselves over the past few years as most every team has a four star or two on their roster. Outside of Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo at Georgia, no one seems dedicated to that particular task. Yes, Urban Meyer had Tim Tebow but Meyer ran the spread and often used Tebow as a 250 pound battering ram in the manner of a single wing tailback. Even South Carolina's Steve Spurrier seemingly has gone away from the principles that made him successful at Florida and he's become more of a run the ball guy than mad bomber.

As we saw Saturday when teams take the time to develop their quarterbacks and turn them loose in the A&M/Arkansas and Georgia/LSU games, even the best defenders can get overwhelmed. It's no coincidence that this is happening when the league has more than it's usual share of quality upperclassmen at the position. Alabama gave up a school record 628 yards to A&M a few weeks ago; Georgia and LSU don't lack for defensive talent (although LSU's is young) and 85 points were scored between two teams with seniors at the position.

I like to call the SEC the NFL Lite but even the SEC has lagged behind in its development of the passing game not just in other leagues but the NFL itself. They're being pushed to do it right now because of the existence of upperclassmen at the position as well as A&M's Johnny Manziel who has invalidated all of the conferences' cherished philosophies by himself. That may be changing but it's going to take more than one year of quality quarterback play to do it which means that teams are going to have to invest multiple years in quarterback development and riskier schemes which is harder for them to do.

-Finally, I got a good look at LSU on Saturday. We've already touched on the LSU/Georgia game to an extent and it was interesting to watch the Tigers because they really lack some of the components that have been a hallmark of their program the past few years. They lost a lot of players to the NFL in the offensive line and defense over the last two years and so neither unit is as good as it's been in the past. In particular, it was noteworthy to see the Tigers struggle to get any kind of pressure Saturday on Aaron Murray or be able to stop the run, even after Bulldog starter Todd Gurley left the game in the first half. In addition, cornerback Jalen Mills and other members of the secondary blew coverage after coverage. You would assume that LSU will improve in both areas by the time that they face A&M; even so, it looks like that both teams are destined to play the same type of shootout against each other that they did versus other teams on Saturday.

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