After A&M got up 14-0, you had the sense that A&M had arrived as a program and that Johnny Manziel was the front runner to win a second Heisman Trophy. Bama came out and put lots of people in the box and blitzed and left its corners in man coverage all the way down the field. A&M used Manziel in the running game with the running backs as extra blockers on counters and draws. In addition, Manziel was able to find Mike Evans isolated on corner John Fulton and adjust to fades and deep throws for big gains. The Aggies even got the ball at their two yard line on a mishandled kick by Brandon Williams and moved down into Alabama territory to answer the Tide's first score of the game.
Then, the game seemed to turn on another deep pass to Evans, one that drew a pass interference penalty on Evans to negate another long pass. Although A&M still moved the ball after that, the Aggies' veneer of offensive invincibility seemed to crack.
Alabama moved Deion Belue onto Evans and Mazniel never came back to Evans and tested Belue after that. He kept trying the middle and left side of Alabama's defense with mixed success. His second interception was a result of him looking that way…he tried to force a ball into undersized slot receiver Travis Labhart down the seam with a defender all over him. The ball got knocked in the air and was intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri but that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was when Sunseri needed to run 70 yards and through 11 offensive players to score a touchdown and still did it.
That seemed to seal A&M's fate at 35-14 because even though the Aggies kept scoring, three touchdowns was more than enough cushion the way that the A&M defense was playing.
More on that later, however.
Manziel's first interception may have been more of a game changer than the second however. Again, you have to ask yourself why the fade to a freshman who really hadn't demonstrated anything other than how to run a go route…why not look to the right side or just put Evans over there to run the fade in the first place. Williams should have continued his route to the boundary rather than looking for the ball earlier. That's inexperience in a red zone situation.
A&M was able to use the QB run game early in the game to offset Alabama's attempt to outnumber A&M in the box. It worked but the Aggies didn't have much success in the inside running game until the second half when Alabama got way ahead and started putting fewer people in the box. In addition, A&M's offensive line didn't win the interior battles that they did in the first two games. A&M struggled with the size of Alabama's interior linemen (especially the nose tackle who wasn't a huge factor in their opener) and couldn't get off blocks to get to Alabama's linebackers. In addition, you have to ask why Tra Carson didn't make an appearance between the 20s in the first half or why his first possible carry was on the option to the outside.
However, once A&M got down 35-14, they played more physically up front. In addition, even though Manziel had the turnovers, he was under more pressure than A.J. McCarron but still made more big unscripted big plays. He, the offensive line, and his receivers did a great job on Malcolm Kennedy's two touchdowns which came on Y cross in which A&M provided good protection (the first one versus a blitz) and the receivers used their routes to clear out.
But even so, in the end, even though Manziel made a lot of great plays and again showed you why he's the greatest player in A&M history, those two turnovers had a major impact. The first one wasn't necessarily his fault and there's no way that Sunseri should have run for a touchdown but you can't wind up on the wrong side of turnover margin and win a game like this. In addition, even with all of the points Alabama scored, the interception return for a touchdown wound up being the points that the Tide needed to win the game. We talked about Alabama needing a defensive or special teams touchdown to win it and despite all of A&M's defensive issues that represented the difference on the scoreboard.
In discussing A&M's defense, to paraphrase Dennis Green, they're not who we thought they were…not even close to it.
All of the fears about replacing productive veteran personnel in the front seven, the lack of playing time for suspended players, and playing younger players came to fruition today. We had significant evidence of it in the first two games but there was some improvement when guys like Kirby Ennis and Deshazor Everett played to give one some confidence that even if A&M couldn't stop Alabama that at least they could slow them down.
However, A&M's problems in the front seven, even among the veterans counted upon to be solid players, did them in. The Aggies lack of technique among their front four led them to playing high which they did in their first two games. They got away with it some against smaller offensive lines in those contests but today they played at Alabama's pad level against folks that were 6 foot 5 and 300 plus pounds. As a result, the linemen were turned on either side of the gaps between them. Not pushed back, but opened like you would open a door to a room. In addition, A&M's defensive tackles didn't command a double team, not even veterans that everyone was counting on, and allowed interior linemen to get to the linebackers at the second level and they're not big enough to fend off 300 pound linemen play after play. That happened among upperclassmen, underclassmen, newcomers, veterans, suspended guys, guys who played in the first two games…it just didn't matter who they trotted out there. Ennis held up better than most but he had to have a great game to have an impact and he didn't.
The individual personnel holes we talked about Friday spread across the front. There's a number of veteran guys who aren't the answer and it may be painful to play the freshmen but either way they have to get better. There were no sacks and very few tackles for loss.
As far as the linebackers, they overran plays and if they didn't still they couldn't get freed up often enough to make plays in the hole. Steven Jenkins got better as the game went on and his forced fumble in the fourth quarter gave A&M new life and allowed Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans to make a game of it. Even so, A&M really could have used Jenkins in the first two games to get to game speed. However, plays like that were few and far between. The inside backers can't continue to play at this level. Freshmen like Jordan Mastrogiovanni didn't appear to make a negative impact and Shaan Washington had a fumble recovery but there were people like Darian Claiborne and Tommy Sanders who just hardly saw the field after putting up big tackling numbers in the first two weeks of the season.
Again, there's a personnel hole there and the verdict is in.
The secondary had issues but that's what happens when you can't stop the run and can't rush the passer…you have to make plays in space too much versus the run and you allow people to get open in the passing game. Devante Harris had his issues early and like Jenkins got better as the game went on. Deshazor Everett seemed to be an improvement at safety in his time there but that might open up a hole at cornerback if he moves there. When Harris left the game for Tramain Jacobs, Jacobs came inside on a bubble screen to allow the slot to block him and left Clay Honeycutt one on one and he missed the tackle that allowed the receiver to score a touchdown.
However, that play occurred at all because A&M had to play eight in the box with man coverage in the secondary far too often. The Aggies tried to keep big plays from developing by playing their corners off with the eight man front and although you could say that they allowed too many catches in front of them, the front gave A.J. McCarron too much time to make decisions and deliver the ball. He came off of a 10 for 28 game to throw four touchdowns and there's not much reason for that other than the lack of a pass rush.
If you ask if A&M could have done anything else from a scheme standpoint, they could have blitzed up the A gaps between the center and guards more. Otherwise, they just have to play better and upgrade their front seven personnel with younger personnel that's on campus right now. They trotted out some of the same guys three straight weeks and have one of the worst rushing defenses in college football with younger guys who had been productive in recent weeks on the bench.
That can't happen again.
Other than Brandon Williams fumbling a kickoff out of bounds, the Aggies didn't give up any big plays in the return game that hurt them. The coverage units were much better today and neutralized Christion Jones. For all of the issues A&M had tackling on defense, those issues weren't there on special teams even when they had to deal with people in space.
A&M played hard and even in defeat Manziel played a tremendous game. The difference for him personally between this year and last year was the turnovers and even if they weren't directly his fault, they usually spell the difference between victory and defeat.
You could say that A&M's defense may not face a better offensive line this season but two weeks after that unit generated just 14 offensive points, Alabama tripled that output in one afternoon. A&M proved today that if it has to outscore people, it's better equipped to do that than just about anyone in the country. However, when you can't stop the run and people know it, they will game plan for that going forward and you can slip up along the way and lose a winnable game.
The Aggies still have a lot to play for like a BCS bowl which they could garner as a one loss team with a Heisman Trophy winner who's putting up big numbers. It was encouraging to watch them fall behind by three touchdowns and keep coming at the Tide. Even so, if they are going to do that, they are going to have to find a way to get better play out of their front seven and that may mean getting younger in a hurry.