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November 11, 2013

Tarp's Monday Thoughts

-There's conflicting emotions about Texas A&M's 51-41 win over Mississippi State over the weekend that aren't going to go away any time soon.

Mind you, the Aggies are 8-2 at this stage of the 2013 season much like they were 8-2 at the same point in the 2012 campaign. Johnny Manziel's numbers aren't that much different from this time last season in terms of overall productivity and he's still churning out highlights that only he can. In fact, he's even considered to be second among Heisman Trophy hopefuls just like he was at the same time last season.

However, that's where the similarities end between the 2012 and 2013 Aggies and the differences and pre season expectations drive the perception of the 2013 team. We've already talked about the expectations for the 2013 season which consisted in large part about hopes for a national title and how the Aggies' loss to Alabama ended those hopes. That's because the 2013 team was never as good as we believed it was going to be and we've all accepted that by now. Ten games in, this team is what it is.

But there's something else at work as well: the 2012 team was an outfit that not only exceeded expectations but played in a way that fans could appreciate and relate to. It had an undersized quarterback who was a joy to watch, could run the ball, had a NFL caliber offensive line, and a senior laden defense that didn't rank high nationally but for the most part stopped the run. All the little things that the 2011 team couldn't do and that ended up getting its head coach terminated…play smart, disciplined football, not turn over ball, play good red zone defense, and get its players to …the 2012 outfit did very well. It was believed that because so many key players and coaches were back that the 2013 team would play the same way.

For nearly three quarters of football on Saturday, reduced expectations and improved defensive play had everyone feeling better about the Aggies' chances of going on the road and pulling out wins against a pair of quality opponents in LSU and Missouri. Then, the Aggies turned over the ball for a third time, the defense allowed 323 yards and four touchdowns in its next five possessions, the penalties…major ones, mind you…piled up, and the heralded offensive line and backs couldn't move the pile.

In fact, what we saw Saturday was Manziel put on another show and the special teams provide the difference in the final score with a long kickoff return and a blocked punt. Interestingly enough, last year observers said that A&M was winning because of Manziel alone even though that team sent multiple players to the NFL.

This year…at least right now…that perception has become reality. Statistically, A&M is in the middle of the conference or worse in most major offensive and defensive statistical categories except for those related directly to Manziel…passing, total, and scoring offense. In addition, the little things that A&M did well last year…like red zone defense (ranked 13th in the SEC in % touchdowns allowed) , not turning over the ball (12th in turnovers lost), not allowing long plays defensively (dead last)…not to mention penalties (13th in the SEC)….they're not doing those things well at all.

As a result, it feels like that A&M is relying almost totally on Manziel to win football games and that they've regressed in playing the type of fundamentally sound football that knowledgeable fans understand championship programs to possess. That in turn affects going into its last two games of the season which will play a large part in not only determining which bowl game A&M plays but also whether or not Manziel can make history and collect a second Heisman Trophy.

Oh, and if you're looking ahead to 2014 when Manziel is no longer here….

-Is it the chicken or the egg?

Is A&M's offense putting too much pressure on A&M's defense via play selection or is A&M's defense simply not carrying its own weight and forcing the offense to be aggressive?

Back in the spring, Johnny Manziel was restricted from crossing the line of scrimmage by the A&M coaching staff as he so often liked to do the season before. The goal was to make him become more of a pocket passer and get the ball downfield more in the passing game while running less. That's always an admirable goal if for no other reason than you want your quarterback taking fewer shots, not more of them, which should keep them healthier. Finally, it seemed that the running game would be different from the 2012 regular season as indicated in the Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma. All of these items would get more people involved in the offense and ease the burden on Manziel.

But in staying in the pocket, A&M also brought some different direction to the passing game that we discussed in detail last week. The A&M staff wasn't just keeping Manziel in the pocket to throw the ball more but to hit the longer routes that are normally clear out routes in the Air Raid offense. As a result, Manziel is averaging over ten yards an attempt while still hitting about 70% of his passes. A&M has also not had a game in which it has scored less than 41 points and is averaging 7.64 yards per play.

But in the process of getting the ball downfield in the passing game, there's been some side effects. Even though A&M is not going three and out as much as fans like to believe, their drives…scoring or otherwise…don't take long. The Aggies held the ball for more than six plays in a drive just once last Saturday and all but two drives were less than two minutes in length. However, when you get the ball down the field, you take chances because you're holding it longer or because it's in the air longer. Manziel has thrown 11 interceptions this season (two more than last year already) and many of them have come in the red zone when the Aggies could have kicked a field goal. In fact, the offense as a whole is turning the ball over more coming down the stretch…ten turnovers in its last three SEC games….than it did last season.

In the meantime, A&M's defense played well on Saturday until the third turnover but then the floodgates opened, giving up 323 yards and four touchdowns in a five possession span. In contrast, they had given up 177 yards and two touchdowns on the previous ten possessions in the game. With 5:22 left, the offense went three and out and Mississippi State got the ball back with 4:00 minutes remaining and scored to cut the lead to ten points.

It's a unit that appears to need all of the help that it can get and turnovers and quick drives means that it keep getting put back out on the field too often.

So…does the offense need to help the defense more or is the offense's firepower needed to overcome the defense's issues?

For a generation of Aggies raised on ball control and defense and understanding how those items work together, it may seem obvious what the answer is. However, the Aggies' defense is giving up 6.12 yards per play on the season and because they are facing more plays than most defenses….742 of them so far to be exact which ranks second behind Missouri…they rank dead last in the SEC in total defense. That same Missouri defense that's also facing 75 plays a game is giving up just 5.11 yards per play.

This is a defense that at some point breaks down within a game and allows an opponent to score four touchdowns in a half regardless of what the offense is doing. That's happened four times this season with three of them coming in the second half of a game. You can blame it on a adjustments by the opponent, alignments, blown coverages, tackling issues, lack of depth, and inexperience but the bottom line is this: if A&M was playing at a slower tempo, the defense would give up fewer points but the offense would be scoring less as well.

A&M does need to cut down on the turnovers because there's been times that A&M seemed to be poised to put people away only for their to be an interception in the red zone, something that happened twice on Saturday. However, it's not like the Aggies are giving teams the ball at their own 20 yard line…these turnovers are occurring deep in the opponent's end of the field. For example, after that third interception in the third quarter, Mississippi State marched 96 yards to cut the lead to ten points and the defense never even got the Bulldogs into a third down situation on that particular drive.

Overall, A&M is just not capable right now of playing four quarters of good defense against a SEC team. You can adjust your game plan offensively to try to compensate for that and cutting down the turnovers would help. You can run the ball better when you do get in the red zone and situations where clock management is an issue. But rather than thinking in terms of time of possession, we probably ought to be thinking in terms of the number of possessions themselves. When you do that, you realize that A&M's offense…by far the best unit on the team…needs to be on the field for as many possessions as possible to score as many points as possible. It's not the ball control approach that we're used to but it's the best possible approach that the 2013 team has to offer.

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