September 14, 2013.
Defending national champion Alabama comes to Kyle Field for the biggest regular season game in Texas A&M history. Alabama should come in as the top ranked team in the country and the Aggies probably will be in the top five (especially if the pollsters are interested in making sure that there is a top five matchup early in the season). It's also the most anticipated regular season game of the 2013 season, at least in the preseason.
I can write about the impact of the game on A&M's program but at this point I would rather try to do something that no one's really done so far and that's talk about what A&M needs to do to win. Last year, I wrote prior to A&M's win over the Tide about how the Aggies could beat them and in researching that particular article I looked at Saban's losses dating back to his second season and what those teams had done to defeat Alabama.
The point of that article surprisingly enough boiled down to one item: you had to take chances and generate big plays against them or else you were stuck playing Nick Saban's game…and it's a game that most teams are going to lose because of Alabama's superior personnel. Generally, teams that beat the Tide generated about five plus big plays (15 yards or longer) in their wins regardless of anything else that happened (the exception over the years being LSU which has recruited well enough to go toe to toe with Bama).
In that game, Johnny Manziel had two rushes over 15 yards and he completed four passes of over 15 yards. Not coincidentally, all of those plays came on drives that resulted in points or scoring opportunities. However, there were a couple of other factors that also played large roles in A&M's victory.
First, Alabama was minus three in turnovers and had 30 yards more in penalties than did A&M. Two turnovers led directly to A&M touchdowns and Deshazor Everett's goal line interception late in the game killed Alabama's last offensive opportunity. In addition, Alabama effectively ended the game by jumping offsides with less than a minute on an A&M punt.
Second, Alabama's running backs only gained 125 yards on 26 carries. Because the Aggies jumped on Alabama early and maintained a two score lead for a decent chunk of the game, A.J. McCarron was required to throw the ball 34 times and often without the benefit of play action passing which slows down the rush and generally puts defenders in one on one coverage. As a result, he threw two interceptions and was sacked twice as A&M could tee off on him and also throw different coverages at him to confuse him.
Even so, A&M's ability to generate big plays was a significant factor in last year's win it's been a constant in terms of teams other than LSU being able to beat Alabama over the years. That's because the Tide essentially plays an eight man front with a man free look in the secondary. They gang up to stop the run and their corners drive your receivers to the sidelines so that you want to audible to a fade call and attempt the lowest percentage pass possible. Most teams that have beat the Tide have been able to hit those outside receivers who won their matchups versus man coverage…but because it's a low percentage play, it doesn't happen very often.
A&M attempted multiple deeper throws to outside receiver Mike Evans against man coverage and they did not work due to the fine efforts of Alabama corner Dee Millner. Nonetheless, even though Manziel couldn't connect with Evans, A&M's offensive line gave Manziel time to hit A&M's inside receivers on longer routes. Bama's safeties and linebackers could not stay with Ryan Swope (11 catches for 111 yards with a long of 42 yards), Kenric McNeal (32 yard reception), and Malcome Kennedy (24 yard touchdown reception). One of Swope's long catches was up the sidelines on a wheel route, another was on a post down the middle, and Kennedy's was on a smash route to the corner. In all three instances, time is needed to allow the receiver to either maneuver to beat the defender or simply outrun him and A&M's offensive line gave Manziel time. Although the Aggies gave up four sacks, it didn't matter because Manziel didn't get rattled by the pressure and turn the ball over. He took his sacks but also took his shots and the shots paid off in spades.
No matter how badly Saban wants to adjust to the talents of Johnny Manziel, a defense is predicated on eight man fronts and man coverage is very vulnerable to an offense that can pass protect because at that point your coverages and abilities to cover go out the window. Remember that in the LSU game the week before Alabama's game with A&M, LSU's Zach Mettenberger threw for 298 yards and five LSU receivers had catches of 19 yards or more. Bama had four sacks but Mettenberger had his best game of the season to that point because he and his receivers got the time to make things happen downfield.
When Alabama looks back at films of themselves during the A&M game, what they especially have to recognize is that despite the fact that their corners played well, they could not match up against A&M's interior receivers. Their linebackers and safeties are recruited to stop the run and not cover slots. Even though those safeties and linebackers are supposed to use combo coverages (where the linebacker takes the receiver short and the safety or nickel back can take them deep), 200 pound safeties 240 pound linebackers aren't built for coverage assignments. They also have to understand that it takes time for those receivers to get downfield and that getting a sack doesn't mean much when the next play can be a 30 yard gain. Consistent pressure is hard to come by when your 280 pound defensive ends aren't edge rushers.
In addition, A&M seems to be intent on making those matchups more of a problem this season. The Aggies worked Evans in the slot during the spring and also added a number of newcomers capable of playing there as well ranging from tight end sized Ricky-Seals Jones to the diminutive Quiv Gonzalez. Even A&M's bigger receivers can outmaneuver Bama's interior defenders and should the Tide try to get smaller, the Aggies can use Evans, Seals-Jones, and tight end Cameron Clear to use their size in the passing game and to run the ball (something that the Aggies emphasized in the Cotton Bowl).
Going into September 14, Alabama thinks that it to worry about Johnny Manziel but the truth is that they've got much more to worry about than him. A&M's offensive line and slots were unsung heroes in last year's win and if the Tide aren't careful, they may well play the same exact role in 2013.