I'm going to lead off with the discussion of that beleaguered unit because they deserve accolades from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder on down.
The staff finally made some personnel changes but they weren't necessarily the ones that people expected. For one thing, A&M played a lot more 4-3 alignments today which meant that a third linebacker, the Sam linebacker, should have played a lot. However, that Sam linebacker wasn't Nate Askew but rather Donnie Baggs who had previously lost his starting spot on the inside at Mike. Baggs had a good game as he looked more comfortable not only playing over Vanderbilt's tight ends but also over Vanderbilt's slots. The Aggies also started Deshazor Everett at corner and thus the starting safeties…as was the plan during the pre season…were Floyd Raven and Howard Matthews.
In addition, when A&M went to alignments with five defensive backs, true freshman Noel Ellis played a lot at nickel back. Ellis saw the field primarily when Vanderbilt was in passing situations which allowed him the opportunity to do what he does best which is cover people up and down the field but he still had four tackles and didn't bust any assignments.
In addition to different personnel, A&M also slanted their front four moreso than what they had been doing. Vanderbilt's offensive line is a taller, brainier group but less adept at cutting off penetration than more athletic groups. By slanting and attacking gaps, the Aggies were able to get penetration on the backside and forced more tackles for loss. Rush defense starts with your front seven making plays on the other side of the ball and that was something that had been missing all season. In addition, you had linebackers able to scrape behind the slants in the opposite direction to meet cutbacks. Finally, the Aggies blitzed quite a bit which Vanderbilt didn't pick up and best utilized A&M's speed at linebacker. The results were just 95 yards rushing, a 2.2 yards per carry average, five tackles for loss in the run game, and a long run of just 14 yards.
By attacking in this manner, the scheme also served to seemingly give a boost to A&M's front seven which played their best game of the year by far. In particular, defensive end Gavin Stansbury had two sacks and nine tackles and his effort was outstanding. He also was more focused and didn't miss assignments. As a result, despite the fact that the Commodores ran lots of plays at him just like Aubrun did last week, he held up much better. Defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Ivan Robinson (starting for an injured Alonzo Williams) were able to stalemate blockers so that they couldn't get to A&M's inside backers with scoop and had to stay with their double teams longer. Steven Jenkins (eight tackles, two tackles for loss) looked like a different player without a big lineman in his face all of the time and the ability to attack gaps and plays from the backside and run to the front side.
Because of this, A&M was able to get Vanderbilt in second and medium/long situations far more often than they were to do so versus Ole Miss or Auburn. That in turn meant more time for situation specific backups like defensive end Daeshon Hall, Askew, and Tommie Sanders as well as more three and outs earlier in drives. The result was a defense that was much more rested which only improved their aggressiveness, pass rush, physicality, and tackling. The Aggies had seven sacks coming into the game and equaled that total in one afternoon.
It helped that A&M was facing a freshman quarterback in Patrick Robinette. Robinette had a few opportunities to make some plays but he alternately held the ball too long, didn't set his feet when throwing, or simply didn't make the correct read. His interception to Howard Matthews at the start of the second changed the game and he just didn't look in the direction of the hitch route he was throwing….A&M wasn't in man free but rather cover 3 which meant that Matthews had the short zone on front of receiver Jordan Matthews. He had two receivers open on a second and goal off of play action and held the ball too long and it went out of the end zone. He misfired behind receivers as well and didn't step up in the pocket. In addition, Stansbury was facing redshirt freshman Andrew Jelks and it was a typical upperclassman and underclassman battle with Stansbury being much better with his hands and pad level and winning the war.
Vanderbilt receivers Jordan Matthews had typical days for them…Matthews with eight catches and Krause averaged 30 yards a reception…but the secondary as a whole with Everett moving to corner and Raven starting at safety was a different unit with some pressure from the people up front. They didn't have to guess wrong on downhill running plays because there weren't many of them or coverages they didn't have to stay with receivers forever. Matthews and Raven took turns playing in the box as the eighth man and wound up combining for 25 tackles.
Overall, this was the type of game that people had been expecting from A&M's defense all season long and was actually much like what the Aggies got from the 2012 unit…good run defense on early downs which forced Vanderbilt into third and long situations which are difficult to convert (just 3 of 14 overall). The staff changed up their schemes, put better personnel on the field, and put them in better position to make plays than they had all year. Vanderbilt isn't the team that people expected them to be before the season started and they're missing some key players but everything came together for one game and barring injuries fans have to feel much better about this team's ability to slow down opposing offenses going forward.