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January 1, 2014
Postgame thoughts: Offense
I really don't know where to begin but I'll start with a coaching decision that may have been a good one at the time but in retrospect may have cost Duke the game. It was certainly one that I second guessed at the time although I'm not sure that anyone else was.
The Blue Devils had gone up 35 to 17 late in the second quarter, had recovered an onside kick, and had completed a pass to A&M's one yard with just seconds left in the half.
Since Duke had rushed for something like a gazillion yards up to that point, it was an easy decision to me to just go for it. Duke had its foot on A&M's throat and a touchdown would have put them up 42-17. Because Duke was getting the ball to start the second half, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe did the percentage thing and kicked the field goal and went up 38 to 17.
However, you can never do the percentage thing with Johnny Manziel around. It was apparent that if A&M got the ball they were going to continue to score touchdowns so Duke was best served by continuing to score them because there were a couple of factors which were helping the Blue Devils that were going unnoticed at the time.
First off, A&M was using a three man front and getting outnumbered and outsized at the point of attack. Once A&M started using a four man front after the start of the first possession of the second half, Duke's offense scored just ten points the rest of the way and turned the ball over twice. Duke never assumed that A&M would make any adjustments and that's something you just can't do at this level.
Second, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone hit 70% of his passes for 427 yards and three touchdowns in the game but during the regular season his footwork and decision making were erratic (he was upside down for the season on his touchdown to interception ratio). He was overachieving and it was matter of time if the ball stayed in his hands too much that A&M could take advantage if they made the right adjustments on defense. Sure enough, he made a couple of bad throws down the stretch and A&M picked them off.
(By the way Will Muschamp, how do those pass plays called by your new offensive coordinator down the stretch while Duke was trying to run out the clock strike you? Any regrets on the hire?)
But you can never, ever, EVER take Johnny Manziel for granted and that field goal certainly did so. It was a tactical error that should have been avoided, especially when you're facing a spread team that averaged 50 points a game for most of the season. You need touchdowns, not field goals, and Duke realized too late that they might not be the first one to 50 in this game.
One thing that I wrote and tweeted about before the game was that A&M needed Johnny Manziel to be Johnny Football and he was. He looked as healthy as he had all season in warm ups and played like it. Although his longest run was only 14 yards, his touchdown pass on the first possession of the second half came when he jumped and spun out of a defender's grasp in the middle of the field, worked his way outside, and hit Travis Labhart from 19 yards out. It was a play only he could make and it kick started A&M emotionally on their incredible comeback. He misfired on some long throws in the first half but his long throw to Derel Walker just a minute after Duke had taken a ten point lead with 6:46 to go (and seemingly put A&M in a real bind) bought the Aggies valuable time that no one thought they had.
In addition, his production .30 of 38 for 382 yards and four touchdowns and NO turnovers as good as it was was again overshadowed by his remarkable plays that simply transcend the sport. Finally, he never gave up on himself and his teammates and in the process capped off his remarkable career with a transcendent game that was unlike and as unlikely as any victory he ever had.
Now, back to the beginning.
A&M came out and did a few things offensively that we hadn't seem much of all year. They actually put Quiv Gonzalez in motion and ran the ball with him. They used Cameron Clear in line and Nehemiah Hicks in the backfield for blocking. They also went up tempo a little bit more on their first drive than we were used to seeing.
However, after that first drive, we saw much of the same things during the rest of the first half that we saw earlier in the season. A&M's run/pass ratio wasn't necessarily out of whack (a 50/50 split by the end of the game) but at one point Manziel had thrown 11 passes and the running backs had just three carries. Manziel was something of a bellcow again in the running game with more carries than any back but the Aggies gradually worked in their backs moreso than they had been doing (16 carries in all). By the way, that total excludes a couple of Quiv Gonzalez's catches that were essentially long handoffs (the forward pitch after coming in motion).
The reason for that was in the second half Duke started using three man fronts with two high safeties. They may have done this to stop the pass but it opened up A&M's running game and the staff actually dialed up Ben Malena's number eight times in fact Malena, Tra Carson, and Trey Williams all averaged better than five yards a carry facing that front. It also didn't help that Duke nosetackle Jamal Bruce went out with an injury and he's got great quickness off the ball. Without him, Duke really lacked the ability to get penetration and generate negative plays (just three tackles for loss overall).
But using the same three man front that A&M abandoned on running downs in the second half opened Duke up to A&M's inside zone/bubble screen concepts which they hadn't used lately. It opened them up to other running plays as well and A&M used its tight ends to push Duke around on the line of scrimmage. It allowed the Aggies to throw the ball for medium distance gains in front of their safeties.
Most of all, it allowed a very good offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage in the second half. Manziel rarely faced any pressure when he dropped back and center Mike Matthews and guards Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi were able to keep pass rushers at bay and also block linemen one on one which freed them up to go after Duke's smaller linebackers. Tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi really stayed with Duke's edge rushers and controlled them. Harrison was also a force when he pulled on both long and short traps. I talked before the game that Duke hadn't seen anyone like A&M's line all year long except for Florida State and it showed .A&M allowed no sacks and rushed for 5.3 yards per carry.
Mike Evans could not have played a worse first half. He had two major penalties, a drop on a key third down situation, and couldn't get separation against Duke's best corner in Ross Cockrell. However, he stayed with it and wound up with a 25 yarder on a back shoulder fade in the fourth quarter that set up an A&M touchdown just a few plays later. Travis Labhart's numbers .seven receptions for 76 yards don't do him justice until you factor in the three touchdowns he scored. Two of them were on passes that he had to adjust to and find open space to score. Derel Walker picked up the slack with six catches for 113 yards and none bigger than the 44 yarder in the fourth quarter that got A&M back within one score so quickly. He was physical both running his routes and after the catch as he has been all year and wrecked Duke's plans to cover him man to man. Cameron Clear had a big 30 yard catch when he used his body to shield a defender on a crucial third and short situation when the Aggies cut the lead to one score for the first time since the first quarter.
In summary, A&M struggled early while Duke came out ready to play and it didn't help that the defense/special teams really couldn't have played much worse of a half of football. However, I said before the game if the Aggies matched Duke's intensity that they would have too much firepower for the Blue Devils to hang with them. It took them awhile but once Manziel got the offense cranked up, he led a relentless charge that put pressure on the Blue Devils' offense until it finally cracked with the late turnovers.
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