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December 1, 2013

A&M's offense can find what it needs against Mizzou

Last night, we saw Missouri try to emulate the same things that LSU did last week against Texas A&M. They started out in a three man front as opposed to a four man front but they only played two linebackers for a five man box. Eventually, they moved to playing a 3-3 look.

Behind these fronts, Missouri played a cover two defense with two high safeties. LSU often played two high safeties in order to prevent big plays down the field from Mike Evans but they manned A&M's receivers up at the line of scrimmage and pressed them all over the place. Missouri played off of A&M's receivers and so really limited the Aggies' ability to get the ball down the field.

The obvious intent of this scheme was to see if A&M would come out and try to run the ball against this front since they had not done so versus LSU. In addition, Missouri is so quick and athletic that they believed that they could get some pressure even with three men.

For A&M fans, it was gratifying to see the Aggies actually come out with a game plan designed to beat this defense. They didn't go with five receivers early in downs like they had been doing; in addition, they ran the ball and stayed with the running game to a greater extent than what we had seen in previous games. Not only that, the running game didn't consist of just Johnny Manziel's scambles. The Aggies' backs carried the ball 24 times and many times A&M would put a tight end in the backfield as an H back and run cross (where the tight end goes to the opposite side of the formation to block) or isolation (where the tight end blocks the linebacker to the play side). They also used a little pistol and option. There were many times that Missouri simply didn't have enough people in the box and the offensive line got good push for the most part. Backs Brandon Williams, Trey Williams, Tra Carson, and Ben Malena had 24 carries for 163 yards and they had three runs over 25 yards. Carson's 29 yard run for a touchdown on A&M's second possession was a really good one because he got good blocking up front and after breaking through the second level made the safety miss in the middle of the field even though he outweighed him by 40 pounds.

As a result, A&M was even able to run some play action off of the run action in the passing game. However, for the most part, A&M's downfield passing game was limited by Missouri's zone coverages and pass rush. Manziel had just two passes over 24 yards and when he dropped back was under pressure from the Tigers even when they were in a three man front. In particular, the Tigers combo covered Mike Evans to the extent that he seemingly had two guys around him most of the night; the Aggies were forced to throw him screens just to try to get him the ball (four receptions for just eight yards). It was a different tactic than what LSU used but even in Baton Rouge Evans occasionally got free down the field; last night the Tigers were well coached and paid particular attention to him wherever he went. Travis Labhart went seven for 81 yards but most of his damage as well as that of Quiv Gonzalez (five for 26 yards) came outside the hashes where they could get open but opportunities for yards after the catch were limited.

That was partially because middle linebacker Andrew Wilson had one of the better games that a linebacker has had versus the Aggies all year. Many times when you watch a backer on film, it almost seems like they're out there just to get people lined up because they are physically limited. That wasn't the case with Wilson; he's very active and moves well laterally. He had eight tackles, two of them for loss. However, the Aggies also miss Malcome Kennedy who's been a very good Y this year in running the shorter routes such as cross and sail.

That brings us to a couple of other position groups. Quarterback Johnny Manziel took what the defense gave him last night rather than try to force the ball down the field (just 5.6 yards per attempt) and threw no interceptions. That helped A&M stay in the game. In addition, his ability to buy time last night was invaluable; he hit Walker off of a scramble for a 32 yard touchdown. However, Manziel never really found much in the middle of the field in the passing game but then again he never has for most of his career. Manziel made hay down the middle last season by taking off on some breathtaking runs; this season, teams have played two high safeties for the most part and as a result there's always multiple people waiting for him. In addition, for whatever reason, he's not been the avoid runner that he was last year. Late in the year, you could attribute that to injuries but he wasn't much different prior to that. He didn't really struggle getting the ball down the field last night throwing it when he got time but herein lies our second point…he didn't get that much time to throw the ball.

Missouri emphasizes athleticism over size up front and although the Aggies were able to deal with that some in the running game, it was a problem in pass protection. Missouri had three sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Although people worried about Michael Sam (the SEC leader in sacks and tackles for loss) coming into the game, backup Markus Golden had a sack, six tackles, and two quarterback hurries. He's got great change of direction and overmatched tackle Cedric Ogbuehi on multiple occasions. Jake Mathews had a couple of penalties on the other side. Center Mike Matthews wasn't facing the type of bigger tackles that he's struggled with during the season but the interior of the line struggled as a whole with Missouri's ability to get penetration for negative plays and Manziel was rarely able to set himself and throw except on shorter passes. For a group that's considered to have multiple high NFL draft picks and whose strength and conditioning is geared toward their ability to move and play at a high tempo, it shows you what can happen against a team that recruits fast people, redshirts them, develops them, and then plays them in waves to wear you down. As we discovered against Auburn and LSU, when A&M needs to get down the field late in the against a team that rotates people, it's difficult even for this line to hold up.

Summary

I try to keep these write-ups as a snapshot and save the bigger picture for Monday thoughts. Overall, there were lots of things that you had to like about what you saw last night, particularly the greater dedication to the running game when the defensive scheme dictated it. That led to the unit being more physical as a whole because people were going forward in run blocking rather than backwards in pass protection. In addition, A&M was penalized just four times and had no turnovers on offense. Like we said Friday, A&M was capable of this kind of performance if they reversed a number of trends that had been the norm during the latter part of the season and they did just that which will make everyone feel better going into the bowl game.

However, A&M still just scored 21 points and had just five explosive plays over 24 yards. As good as A&M's offense is supposed to be, it came nowhere near its season averages in points or yardage (379 yards total offense). For every explosive play, there were two negative plays. Most importantly, after tying the game in the fourth quarter on a 98 yard drive in which A&M pounded the Tigers for 54 yards, they went three and out on three straight possessions. You can question the play calling but Missouri's defense is built to win those critical end of game possessions and they did just that, recording a sack, quarterback hurry, and two tackles for loss.

It's instructive that Missouri essentially runs the Air Raid but after their first season in the SEC they became a far more physical offense that focused on protecting their quarterback via the run game, play action, and using a tight end more. A&M didn't need to learn those lessons last season with the greatest playmaking quarterback of his generation but down the stretch of the 2013 season it's become apparent that something needs to change going forward if the Aggies are going to play with the better defenses in the SEC.


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