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December 31, 2013

Special teams could be decisive in bowl game

-Big plays define special teams much moreso than offense and defense because they are game changing events from an emotional level…one minute the opponent is going to get the ball 50 yards down the field on a simple change of possession and the next they're celebrating in your end zone.

Duke's special teams played a big part in the six game winning streak that closed out the regular season and resulted in a berth in the ACC championship game. The Blue Devils returned four kicks for touchdowns and blocked a couple of others. The returns alone boosted their scoring average by two points a game as part of the "hidden yardage" that special teams and penalties comprise as part of the game of football. That may not seem that important overall but outside of receiver Jamison Crowder, Duke's offense lacks explosive playmakers and is not a big play unit (11th in the ACC in plays over 20 yards). Their quarterbacks struggle to get the ball downfield to Crowder and their running backs had just 15 plays of over 20 yards all season.

Crowder handles punt returns and his most important attribute is being able to make the first guy miss in coverage. He's very elusive after that and is a glider as a runner…he destroys angles even though he looks like that he's not moving at top speed. Freshman corner Devon Edwards had two touchdown returns on kickoffs and has some of the same attributes that Crowder does. In addition, he has a low center of gravity that enables him to shrug off tacklers much more easily than you would imagine for a guy his size.

However, there's more to Duke's special teams than their return game. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has made improving special teams a goal and he's done more than just recruit great return men. He's built up enough depth so that Duke plays primarily backups on special teams and those newcomers have good athleticism. In addition, punter Will Monday was fifth in the ACC in average and had 21 kicks downed inside the 20 with only six touchbacks.

However, Texas A&M's special teams have gotten a surge of their own via the hiring of new special teams coach Jeff Banks and improved recruiting. The Aggies blocked three kicks this season and Banks showed a knack for breaking down opponents' weaknesses. On coverage, bringing in four star defenders doesn't just help the defense…it means that you've got improved depth so that starters don't have to play special teams and the youngsters are fast, fresher, motivated, and are able to get down better in coverage. A&M did not allow a touchdown on returns this season and ranked third in the SEC in kickoff coverage.

The Aggies struggled in punt coverage but were helped out immensely by Drew Kaser's booming kicks. The Lou Groza finalist finished second nationally with a 47.4 yard average. Between Kaser's kicks and the kickoff coverage, opponents usually didn't have good field position to start drives which helped out a defense that needed all the help it could get.

Other aspects of A&M's special teams weren't so special. The return game struggled to find a punt returner who could hold onto to the ball until Travis Labhart stepped up later in the season. Trey Williams was a game changer on kickoff returns…other players not so much. Place kicking was plagued by issues in snapping, holding, and kicking and they continued even after Josh Lambo solidified the kicking aspect of it.

But more than anything else, A&M generated some big plays off of special teams, and didn't allow their opponents to do the same, and that's basically how you define whether or not your special teams are special. The key for A&M versus Duke will be to keep Crowder and Edwards in check in the return game and Crowder (punt returns) in particular may pose problems for a unit that struggled with staying in lanes and tackling. If Duke is to win, they are going to have to generate big plays on special teams and defense and if A&M can keep them from it, then Duke's chances diminish appreciably.

-Duke hasn't faced may offensive lines this season like A&M's. From a matchup standpoint, the keys are probably A&M left tackle Jake Matthews versus Duke end Kenny Anunike and center Mike Matthews versus nose tackle Jamal Bruce. The elder Matthews has struggled at times this season with speed rushers and Anunike has good athleticism and length but injuries have robbed him of some of his explosiveness. The younger Matthews will be facing off against a nose who is very quick but won't present some of the size problems that Matthews has faced this year.

Duke's front four is far from being the type of elite unit that the Aggies have run into during their time in the SEC, especially in terms of athleticism. If offensive coordinator Jake Spavital wants to be more committed to running the ball than A&M was during the season, this game would be a good time to put that philosophy to work.

-A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became more of a pocket passer this season and improved both his accuracy and ability to hit people down the field. However, the Aggies also displayed a propensity to turn the ball over when the field got compressed and Duke's defense lives off of such miscues because they're not good enough to stop people consistently. Duke's defensive backs are athletic and aggressive and won't back down from the challenge of facing a Mike Evans. Outside of the red zone, the Aggies need to be able to generate explosive plays against man coverage; inside the red zone, they need to run the ball and avoid miscues.

-In that vein, how healthy and aggressive will Johnny Manziel be? He struggled with injuries versus LSU and Missouri but overall he's really turned on his athleticism this season only when he feels like that he needs to. There's not much doubt that this is his last game at A&M and it will be something to see whether he comes out swinging or not. While Duke isn't going to be cowed by him (they just faced another Heisman Trophy winner a few weeks ago), they haven't seen anything like him and as Oklahoma found out last season it's hard to prepare for the chaos that Manziel's feet and vision can cause. If he makes the game his own, then Duke simply won't be able to keep up.

-One interesting thing I noticed in watching film on Duke's offense: while it's basically the same offense that Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State run, there's one important difference in the blocking scheme. Those teams like to pull people to the opposite side and either knock defenders back in the hole or kick them out. They'll pull not just linemen but their H backs as well. This can allow defenders to beat down or reach blocks behind the pulling lineman or the that lineman himself and lead to tackles for loss.

Although the Blue Devils will trap with their H back, they basically zone block you up front…they step to the playside, get a helmet on helmet, and take you wherever you want to go. While they don't blow people off the ball, they are very sound technically in terms of their footwork and hands and understand who to block. Unless you beat them off the snap man on man, you're not going to have that opportunity by beating a down block or them making a mistake. In addition, their backs are good inside runners who are well coached to follow those blocks and run with good pad level. As a result, they just don't allow many negative plays which is important for an offense that struggles to generate explosive plays of its own.

-In that vein, with the suspension of middle linebacker Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni is going to see a lot of action tonight.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has talked up Mastrogiovanni as being the starter for next season at Mike even prior to Claiborne's suspension because of his length and smarts. He started against Alabama on the outside and struggled because he was a true freshman thrown into a situation that he wasn't ready for. Since then, he's been gradually reintroduced into the mix in recent games and has been more physical while being out of position less.

He's going to be facing a team that will run right at him and Steven Jenkins. The Aggies have recently used a three man front in order to get athletic players like Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold in mismatches versus bigger interior linemen. However, Duke doesn't use a blocking scheme that's conducive to people shooting backside gaps to make plays and so A&M is going to have to be gap sound up front and the inside linebackers can't overrun plays. If they don't do those things, then Duke is going to have much more success scoring points than they are used to.

-A&M's secondary typically plays off of receivers in order not to allow any big plays. However, that philosophy will get a significant test tonight as outside of Jamison Crowder as Duke doesn't throw the ball down the field that much as they lack both the quarterbacks and speed to do so. They like to throw the shorter routes and so A&M's defensive backs and linebackers are going to have to be very cognizant of distance on third downs. Otherwise, Duke will just take that space and move the chains.

-Overall, I think that there are four real keys to the game for A&M.

First, Manziel must play as close to his old self as possible and convert his red zone opportunities without turning over the ball.

Second, A&M has to be able to keep Duke's running game in check and they have to provide protection to a freshman Mike linebacker making his first start at the position. Otherwise, Duke keeps A&M's offense off the field and increases the feeling that the Aggies have to score on every possession which leads to people pressing and making mistakes.

Third, A&M can't allow any big plays in the kicking game. They don't have to win it but they sure can't lose it.

Finally, how motivated is A&M to play in this game? Upsets occur most often in bowl games when the favorite is looking ahead to next season or backwards at the regular season. This is a big game for Duke and they're excited to be here. The Aggies have to match that intensity and if they do so then this game should play out like so many A&M wins during the season with the Aggies having just too much firepower for the Blue Devils to hang with them.

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