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October 14, 2013

Tarp's Monday Thoughts

-We are in the middle of the Johnny Manziel Farewell Tour and we continue to see things out of him that we'll never seen again in our lifetime. In addition, every week we see something different out of him that we can check off our "Quarterback Development" list.

Manziel has led comebacks before such as the one at Oxford last season but he had yet to lead the Aggies on a walk off, game winning drive. Down seven with about six minutes to go Saturday night, was there ever any doubt that A&M was going to come back and tie the game? Was there ever any doubt that he would convert a fourth and seven to keep the drive alive?

His smile after Ole Miss scored to go up 38-31 was just the perfect combination of confidence and competitiveness. We've all seen quarterbacks who don't fear situations like that dating from the time I used to watch former Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach in the 70's. Many times he would find himself down not one but two scores and have no alternative to being absolutely perfect down the stretch for ten passes in a row and he would make it happen. Joe Montana always had that blank look on his face when he was whipping the Niners down the stretch of Super Bowl even though he hadn't played well at all that day. Yesterday, Tom Brady had thrown an interception that had enabled the Saints to kick a field goal and go up by four points with under two minutes to go and no time outs. He's lost most of a quality receiving corps that's been a part of a Super Bowl and AFC title game appearances. Yet, there he is throwing for the game winning touchdown with five seconds left and removing the Saints from the NFL's list of unbeatens.

But for all of that, I've never seen anyone like Manziel who embraced and relished those situations as much as he does. It was all written there in that smile on his face when Ole Miss scored and it was a portent of the Rebels' doom.

-It's hard to argue when Texas A&M decides to put the game entirely in Manziel's hands like they did against Alabama. The Tide's defense isn't equipped to handle five receiver sets because they can't play combination coverages on slot receivers like they want to and if you block them you'll get people running free down the field. In addition, defenders playing man coverage aren't watching the quarterback which sets up both designed runs and scrambles.

Against Ole Miss….the Rebels aren't very big and have a tendency to gamble on defense with different looks, stunts, and blitzes. Plus, the A&M staff had spent the off season using more two back looks and getting Manziel to look downfield more and run less. Finally, the Aggies had shoved Arkansas' six man box all over the place two weeks ago and had watched Auburn reduce its formations and use a lot of inside zone and zone read to very successfully run the ball against the Rebels just last week.

In other words, you've got a macro approach of how you want to do things and an approach on a micro level as well. You've even got real world examples on your behalf and those of Ole Miss' opponents about how to game plan against them. Nonetheless A&M comes out, uses five receivers, runs Manziel on a quarterback draw on the first play of the game, and throws bubble screens multiple times on the first drive.

Manziel wound up handling the ball 69% of the time Saturday night. The only game he's been utilized more was Alabama when he ran or passed on 75% of A&M's plays. Overall, it's just hard to explain why we saw what we did from a schematic standpoint Saturday.

-Travis Labhart has really come on as a slot receiver this season. He even had a 35 yard gain on four verticals when he made a nice catch of a back shoulder fade from Manziel. He's got reliable hands and he gets separation. He's developed into a very nice move the chains slot receiver in the Air Raid offense.

-The Aggies' defense is at that stage of its development where it's taking a step forward and then a step back. They did a very nice job in the run game for a while with tailback Jeff Scott being a non factor with just 11 yards and the Rebels had just 132 yards rushing total. The Aggies stayed in nickel, moved Toney Hurd and Deshazor Everett up to the line of scrimmage, and blitzed them off the edge which took away the Rebels' ability to run outside. In addition, they spent many downs with a linebacker outside the box and both Hurd and Everett aligned on the same side. Also, Devante Harris and Tramain Jacobs tackled well.

In particular, Isaiah Golden gives this team a different dimension in terms of playing run defense. Due to a lack of stamina, he has a tendency to start playing higher and getting less push on longer drives but early on he will command a double team and free up inside linebackers to make tackles. On the fourth down stop on Ole Miss' first drive, he pushed two guys back which allowed Darian Claiborne to make a tackle in the backfield which is something that A&M hasn't done a lot of this season.

Even so, it doesn't take much to get the defense off track and when it happens both points and yards can come in a hurry. The loss of Deshazor Everett was almost crippling. He's the best tackler on the team and he gets involved in so many of them when he's playing up in the box. He's very aware so he makes more plays than most people. He can cover short receivers in man and doesn't blow zone coverages.

However, the big thing Ole Miss did Saturday night was on their second possession on the second half. They started using 320 pound offensive tackle Emmanuel McCray as an in line tight end, freshmen Evan Engram and Nicholas Parker as fullbacks and H-backs, and promptly scored on four of their next five possessions. Engram caught three passes for 26 yards and Parker proved to be a reliable blocker. The Rebels also brought in 195 pound I'Tavius Mathers who is their biggest back.

All of sudden, Ole Miss started running inside zone and power with pulling guards against personnel and alignments designed to stop outside run. Even when running away from McCray, A&M's linebackers, safeties, and corners were also facing bigger people on the perimeter and carrying the ball and were unable to match that size when taking on blocks or ballcarriers. Plays that were being stopped at the line of scrimmage in the first half started being stopped three, four, and seven yards down the field. Things were made worse when Ole Miss added senior Barry Brunetti (a runner) into the game who brought an added dimension as a runner. Not known as a passer, he also hit two touchdowns off of play action.

Here's the interesting part about all of this: Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is a spread coach but he uses power concepts like this. He's less about the Air Raid than he is about tempo and using fullbacks and quarterback runs. The Aggies never made the adjustment of getting out of nickel and getting another linebacker into the game to counter what Ole Miss was doing. This upcoming weekend, things must be different when the Aggies face the Tigers and they should be in more of a three linebacker look in order to account for Auburn's power rushing attack.

-Most A&M fans assumed that once the Aggies got past Ole Miss that the schedule was relatively smooth sailing the remainder of the season with the exception of the LSU game. Most of A&M's games would be at home and even the Aggies' last game of the season versus Missouri was against a team that A&M clobbered last season and didn't make a bowl. Both Auburn and Missouri got off to good starts and even beat top 25 teams with Missouri's win at Georgia being most impressive. Thus, both games looked to be much tougher affairs than a few weeks ago.

However, both teams use running quarterbacks and there's a difference between how A&M uses Johnny Manziel versus how Auburn and Missouri use theirs. Manziel's runs are mostly improvised; both Auburn and Missouri use designed runs out of the zone read. In addition, they ask them to be either the primary or second down to down ball carrier which means that they take a lot of abuse. To an extent, they have to do this (especially Auburn) in order to move the football on the ground by outnumbering the defense with another back. The downside is that if your quarterback gets hurt, your offense (especially the running game) can go with them.

Well, Franklin will now miss the rest of the season and it's unknown how Missouri will fare going forward with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk at the controls. In addition, Auburn's Nick Marshall missed last week's game versus Western Carolina after being injured versus Ole Miss the week before. He may not be 100% for A&M and Auburn may now have to modify their game plan on how they use him in light of the injury.

Either way, it's warning that you can get good fast by using your quarterback in this manner but it's not a long term solution and maybe not a medium term one playing in a conference like the SEC.

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