It may not have looked like it but A&M made some strides on defense tonight. SMU had seven possessions in the first half and sustained just two drives for scores. The big plays that plagued the Aggies in their first three games declined significantly…just three explosive plays of over 15 yards for the Mustangs. Finally, the Aggies forced three turnovers and were much more physical tonight, really striking ball carriers and pushing SMU around up front.
A&M changed up its personnel tonight which allowed them to do these things. True freshman Darian Claiborne got the start at Mike and he's a guy who's very aware of his surroundings. For example, on pass coverage, he doesn't just drop into a zone…he'll drop and read the receivers and pick them up as they come into his area. In addition, he runs sideline to sideline and even if he wasn't in on the tackle you could always find him near it.
Deshazor Everett was moved to strong safety and Tramain Jacobs got the start at cornerback in his place. Like Claiborne, there's a purpose to what Everett does. There's nothing aimless about his play. He's aware of everyone around him and so he's always where the ball is. He'll come up in run support and since he's got the skills of a cover corner he can man up slot receivers. He freed up Howard Matthews to play the deep third or halves and not have to worry so much about run support and being caught up in a run pass bind.
When the Aggies went to three linebacker sets and a three man front, Nate Askew was in at Sam. Askew can come off the edge and rush the passer but he also played well in coverage. In addition, when A&M was having trouble tackling, his long arms enabled him to wrap people up. With Askew, Jenkins, and Tommie Sanders rotating in, A&M has much more speed on the field at linebacker.
In addition, as a group, A&M also was much more physical tonight. SMU didn't just hand A&M the ball on its turnovers…the Aggies did more gang tackling and knocked it loose. They also played faster, especially veterans like Toney Hurd, and weren't as tentative, ostensibly because of the lineup changes (which put better players on the field) but also because people like Steven Jenkins had been suspended for a game or two and needed game reps to get up to game speed.
Finally, the defense tonight looked moreso like last year's defense. SMU had something to do with that but A&M tended to get off the field early on by stopping third down conversions and allowed the Mustangs just one touchdown in four trips in the red zone. Also, they gave up just two field goals by the time that A&M had scored 39 points after its first possession of the second half.
Even so, this unit remains a work in progress. The Aggies gave up 432 yards total offense, 5.5 yards per rush (not far below their season average), and 25 first downs (although in fairness most of them came after the game was out of reach). The Aggies were really helped out via penalties by a young offensive line which wiped out gains and put SMU in several third and long situations. Three negatives really stood out: one, A&M generated very little pass rush. There was no edge pressure even when A&M was sending fast linebackers on blitzes. SMU QB Garrett Gilbert had far too much time to seek out his options. Secondly, while A&M hit hard, they had a tendency not to wrap up. There were far too many missed tackles, even when A&M gang tackled. Third, there's still some personnel issues. Moving Everett to safety may have created a hole in the secondary at another position. Defensive linemen still need to stay lower and use their hands better. Those things weren't a factor tonight because SMU simply lacks the quarterback or offensive line to take advantage of them.
Finally, some of the freshmen continue to look good. Daeshon Hall simply needs to add weight but when he slants across the face of an offensive lineman, it's hard to reach him and he can get into the backfield. A&M continues to insist on moving him inside on their three man front when blitzing a linebacker on his side which totally negates his athleticism coming off the edge. In addition, some of A&M's linebackers can run but just can't match up with bigger tackles so they can't get a pass rush either. Isaiah Golden also came in and made an impact. When he's in the game, the offensive line moves backwards. Shaan Washington is another guy who's active and aware of what's going on around him. He's got a great frame and eventually he could be like Sean Porter…a rangy guy who's good in coverage and gets better against the run as he adds weight.
Overall, A&M improved its personnel and the defense looked more like the unit we probably expected to see before the year started. Everett and Claiborne make the unit better but the tackling and lack of pass rush remain real concerns going forward.
SMU had primarily been a man coverage unit in the secondary so that they could try to put more people close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. However, they had been victimized by big plays and after watching A&M destroy that type of coverage last week, they shifted gears. The Mustangs rushed only three linemen and kept two safeties deep. This not only cut down on Johnny Manziel's being able to go downfield to his receivers but also kept people in front of him when he broke the pocket.
As a result, Manziel shifted gears himself. He moved around to buy time and either run for good but not long gains (8.5 yards per carry) or hit receivers underneath the safeties in stride where they could generate more yardage after the catch. The result in the passing game was a 67% completion rate, 11.6 yards per attempt, and five plays of over 20 yards even though he rarely threw the ball more than ten yards. With SMU playing off the line of scrimmage he had to settle for making people miss and he did it often enough that he averaged 8.5 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. Even though there were no highlight reel plays, the display of his skills on some of the runs reminded us that no one can escape trouble or create ten yard gains out of certain losses like he can. The result was a very efficient but entertaining performance. In addition, when another A&M quarterback is in the game and has to move around, they just don't have his mobility to escape pressure like he does and the offense looks very different.
Matt Joeckel looked better than Kenny Hill. He showed good arm strength on one sideline throw and placed a pass to Lakendrick Williams where only he could get it and a safety going for the ball couldn't.
With SMU playing off the line of scrimmage and sometimes moving an inside lienbacker outside the tackle box versus slots, A&M's linemen found themselves blocking five on three at times in the run game and being able to have 310 pound guards blocking 5 foot 10 linebackers. Between that and their significant size advantage, the Aggies averaged 5.5 yards per run. In fact, all four backs…Ben Malena, Brandon Williams, Tra Carson, and Trey Williams…had a run over 13 yards.
Jarvis Harrison and German Ifedi are very physical blockers and buried people when they had the chance. However, there were more mental mistakes than usual and A&M had nearly as many penalties tonight as they did in the first three games of the season. Like SMU, A&M put itself in long yardage situations through penalties but unlike the Ponies had the talent to overcome them.
Mike Evans had just two catches but one of them was for 46 yards when SMU blitzed and left the middle of the field open for Evans to run a post route. Malcolm Kennedy gave another good performance tonight. He averaged nearly 14 yards a catch and had another red zone touchdown. His route running is better and he's physical blocking in both the screen and run game. Mostly, the receivers read the defense, broke off their routes underneath the coverage, caught the ball with their hands, adjusted to it, and ran with it after the catch.
The offense as a whole seemed to lose focus after A&M jumped out to a 14-0 lead and turned the ball over with a chance to go up 21-0. You wouldn't know that by the stats and it's not like they dropped passes or committed multiple turnovers. Overall, A&M more or less did what it needed to do even though they didn't match their previous levels of production due to SMU's scheme and their penalties.
A&M did some things really well. They pulled off an onside kick when SMU started running back down before the ball was kicked which left no one ten yards from the spot of the kickoff (kudos to them for noticing it) and foiled a fake punt due to the efforts of Nehemiah Hicks. Taylor Bertolet had three touchbacks in seven efforts and Drew Kaser averaged 43.6 yards per kick. SMU's average starting field position was its own 20 yard line (in contrast, the Aggies had six possessions start at their own 46 yard line or better). The Mustangs never generated a big play that could have turned some momentum or flipped field position. However, the three missed extra points were inexcusable no matter whose fault they were (and there was [planet of blame to go around). Josh Lambo did hit a 40 yard field goal so it looks like that for right now he's the answer.
After failing to go up 21-0 due to an interception caroming off Derel Walkers' hands and into those of a SMU defensive back, the Aggies made things worse by promptly allowing the Mustangs to drive down and kick a field goal. Mentally, they never seemed to play with the same edge the rest of the night, especially the offensive line which suffered numerous penalties. However, they were coming off of perhaps the biggest regular season game in Kyle Field history and still did several good things. They got improved defensive play via lineup changes, committed just one turnover, forced three turnovers themselves, and were efficient on offense outside of the penalties. They've still got concerns on defense (lack of a pass rush) that won't go away and some other items (tackling and kicking extra points) that are correctable and should go away.
Now, A&M begins the SEC schedule in earnest and starts playing more teams that won't spread the field as much and will test A&M's run defense and lack of pass rush. Nonetheless, the Aggies are still well equipped to outscore all of them and they still have the best player in the country to fall back on when they need a big play.