I'm going to start off with a discussion of this particular unit because they may well have been the difference in the game. They basically accounted for nine points via Sam Moeller's punt block for a safety in the first quarter and Trey Williams long kickoff return in the fourth quarter (that should have been a touchdown). Another three points came as an opportunity cost for the Bulldogs when freshman Evan Sobiesk missed a makeable field goal.
Drew Kaser averaged 50 yards on three punts and when he realized that the rush was coming at him quickly on one punt in the third quarter he sped up the kick and hung in there to draw a roughing penalty. They also covered an onside kick late although they made it more exciting than it needed to be.
You can judge special teams on starting field position or other items but big plays are usually the final arbiter in deciding how well that you have played. The Aggies essentially gained nine points from those plays and ended up winning by ten. Special teams coach Jeff Banks had his unit ready to go today and they blocked and covered well
Ten for 105 yards. This deserves a special category all its own because they came on all three units…offense, defense, special teams…and weren't of the five yards for offsides variety. Holding, facemasks….you name it. A&M really struggled with being disciplined and the longer the defense stayed on the field, the more their effort flagged which led to them committing even more penalties. It's one thing to have them occur against a now sub .500 ballclub. It will be another for them to happen against LSU and Missouri to close out the season in the run for a BCS bid.
Mississippi State tried to play two high safeties with man coverage underneath. In addition, when they played man free coverage, they shaded the safety to Mike Evans' side in order to try to prevent big plays from him. It didn't matter from a productivity standpoint as the Aggies basically matched their season average with 51 points. Johnny Manziel hit 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and averaged over 11 yards an attempt with five touchdowns. A&M's offense hit 500 yards for the ninth straight game. Manziel himself was under pressure much of the day when he dropped back and although he was sacked a couple of times he made multiple big plays rolling out of the pocket. He made the biggest play of the game late in the third quarter when he recognized that the corner to Evans' side was coming in on what appeared to be a blitz and then stopped and started going back to Evans. Evans was wide open down the sideline and the safety to that side apparently wasn't expecting the corner to let him go. Manziel hit Evans who completed a 75 yard catch and run which set up a 15 yard run by Trey Williams shortly thereafter.
Mississppi State's front was able to get upfield much better than they had in recent games. In particular, freshman tackle Chris Jones played very well and got a lot of penetration. As a result, A&M's offensive line struggled to get any push in the run game between the tackles. Overall, the Aggies gained just 2.8 yards per rush, had a long run of just 16 yards, and the Bulldogs were missing their best defender, linebacker Deontae Skinner. Also, Manziel was under pressure more than what most people would have expected against a team that registered just ten sacks coming into the game. However, their inability to change direction meant that Manziel was able to make the first rusher miss and spin to the sidelines where he was able to buy time.
Most importantly, the Bulldogs' safeties, linebackers, and nickelbacks struggled in coverage with A&M's slots in the first half and a part of the third quarter. As a result, Travis Labhart and Malcome Kennedy combined for 14 receptions for 198 yards and four touchdowns. When Mississippi State finally began to align people to deal with them, Evans found himself in man coverage or with safeties rotating over too late to deal with him in zone. He wound up with five catches for 116 yards.
However, A&M's continuing desire to get the ball down the field in the passing game means that both the Aggies and the opponent can make big plays in the passing game….A&M via long gainers and Mississippi State via three interceptions. Two of the interceptions came in the red zone which has been a particular problem this year as A&M continues to hold the ball and try to make plays downfield in a compressed area. One interception came under pressure and the other came on a decision to try to look off the safety shaded to Mike Evans' side and still get the ball to him. For the offense, it may not matter much because A&M averages 50 points a game anyway. However, the defense needs all of the help that it can get because they can only play well for so long. It's no coincidence that the Aggies had allowed just 14 points when the third turnover occurred and gave up 27 points in just about a quarter and a half.
Up until A&M's third turnover of the game, A&M's defense had played relatively well. I mentioned right before the game that Mississippi State liked to run power at the three technique which is normally a smaller, quicker defender than the nosetackle. Last season, Kirby Ennis held up very well against the double teams that accompany the play while Spencer Nealy got penetration from the backside. As a result, the Bulldogs had several three and outs early while A&M was running up a 31-0 lead.
With Tyler Russell (more of a dropback passer) starting the game in place of Dak Prescott, the emphasis shifted from the option to inside zone and power. Ivan Robinson (the three tech in A&M's defense) played very well early in getting upfield with good pad level and nosetackle Isaiah Golden pushing the middle. A&M stopped for a fourth and short early in the game and one of the Bulldogs' touchdown drives was only 35 yards in length.
However, as the game went on, the Bulldogs began to use Prescott more in the run game with inverted veer and began to test A&M's defensive ends. The Aggies' defense also stayed on the field longer and longer and started getting upfield less. As a result, not only did the Bulldogs start running the ball but they were also able to throw it off of play action successfully. Prescott wound up with 154 yards rushing (9.6 yards per carry) and threw a couple of touchdowns (with one more coming on a reverse pass by Jameon Lewis) as A&M's corners struggled in man coverage off of play action or flat out blew coverages. As A&M got tired, they committed penalties and their tackling in one on one situations and run fits deteriorated. They got just one sack, forced one turnover, and had only five tackles for loss. Darian Claiborne had another nice game with eight tackles and a forced fumble but no defensive linemen finished among the top eight tacklers. The Bulldogs ran for 299 yards and a 7.0 average per carry which exceeded their season averages and scored 41 points which was a high versus BCS programs.
We discussed before the game that Mississippi State didn't not have enough big play ability in the passing game to keep up with A&M. In fact, every time the Bulldogs closed to within striking distance with a long drive, the Aggies answered with a big play of their own.
However, we were wondering what version of the A&M defense that would see today and for a while it looked like Version 4.0 would hold up well. However, it eventually wore down under the weight of turnovers and penalties because it can withstand only so much adversity. A&M's penchant for getting the ball downfield in the passing game because of play calling or decision making (take your pick) means that the Aggies can score a lot of points to overcome the defense but also means that they put them in difficult situations that they find difficult to overcome.
In addition, it was probably the last appearance of A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel on Kyle Field…at least he gave the appearance it was…and he put on a show that only he can. There's no denying that he makes things exciting for both teams but overall but A&M's defense is what it is and there's probably just one player in the country that can win games for his team even when that team is allowing 500 yards itself. In addition, he didn't get a lot of help from the running game and consistently had to leave the pocket himself under pressure. Even so, he threw on the run and down the field and made play after play that no one else in college football or in A&M history could make.
He's the type of player who puts up big overall numbers but those are the ones you don't remember…it's the third and 25 situations where he not only escapes with a flourish and makes a defender fall down but wings it downfield without even having his feet set for what seems like an impossible first down that you take with you. In addition, his acknowledgement of the Kyle Field crowd at the end of the game and his leap into the stands afterwards…his embrace of them and them of him…is so unique in modern sports.
Most disappointingly, his time has seemed so fleeting, like he was here and gone in the blink of eye. Kyle Field is going to look so different next fall not just because it's undergoing reconstruction. The renovated stadium will literally be The House That Johnny Built.
For that and the memories, we're all grateful. Thank you Johnny for the ride of a lifetime.