Let's talk football...by starting with a baseball analogy.
In baseball, the key on defense is to be strong up the middle -- catcher, middle infielders and center field. A&M has improved on defense the last couple of weeks not only because they're playing lesser competition, but because they've become stronger up the middle -- defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety. Alonzo Williams was not playing badly when he went down, but Ivan Robinson appears to be playing in a fashion that fits the defensive scheme better. While the rapidly improving Isaiah Golden is taking on double teams, Robinson has been penetrating into the backfield in a fashion that Spencer Nealy did last year working off of Kirby Ennis' taking on the double. He really appears to have recovered his quickness after tearing his Achilles, and he and Golden work well together.
At Mike linebacker, Darian Claiborne is not only developed into a tackling machine, but is now doing a good job getting everyone else in position. Coach Snyder is not only pleased with they're seeing out of him, but the noticeable improvement in the play of Howard Matthews as well. I'm not sure if it's working with Floyd Raven that has made him a more confident player, but he's better in all facets of the game right now. One of Matthews' strong suits has always been his play against the run, and they're using him more up at the line of scrimmage. Mississippi State is probably going to be run-heavy as well, so it wouldn't be a shock to see him used in a similar fashion this week. He could also be used as a blitzer in passing situations.
To me, Mississippi State looks similar to the team A&M ripped 38-13 in Starkville last year, with a more mobile quarterback and a worse secondary. They're pretty big, they're pretty strong, they handle their responsibilities well -- but they're not athletic and they don't make plays. They're -1 in turnover margin (10 forced, 11 turnovers) and only have 10 sacks on the season. A&M is +6 and, in spite of an oft-criticized pass rush, has gotten 16 sacks (9 in the past two games).
Last year, the Aggies didn't think much of Tyler Russell's ability to throw the football and blitzed frequently with linebackers and safeties to not only get pressure (the Aggies only got one sack, but got Russell off balance), but to shut down the run as well. State carried the ball 27 times for 98 yards and was out of it by halftime. A lot of pressure came straight up the middle from Sean Porter and Steven Jenkins, and State's offensive line, while big, had trouble dealing with A&M's quickness. When the Aggies did string out the run, they did a good job containing and making tackles. That has not been a strong suit this year until the last two weeks, so we'll see if it holds up. This is one area where Donnie Baggs will be of pretty big importance on Saturday. He's played well since returning to the starting lineup on the outside, and he's going to have to keep Prescott and the Bulldog backs from getting to the edge and heading upfield.
Dak Prescott is a much better runner than Russell and should be able to make some plays with his feet, but he's not as good as passer. If A&M uses a similar defensive game plan this weekend as they did last year, it would make sense. This has already been a very difficult week for Prescott, as he lost his mother to cancer. Our thoughts and prayers certainly go out to him and his family.
On offense, A&M is a lot more athletic than State is. Last year's offensive line neutralized their front seven quickly, and the Bulldogs had no clue how to handle the speed A&M brought with Manziel, Ben Malena, C-Mike and Ryan Swope, who had a huge day catching a lot of short passes.
Manziel did not throw for a score last year in this game, but he ran for two and went for 142 yards rushing. The Aggies, as a team, ran for 378. Throw in the Williams boys this weekend and maybe Tra Carson and A&M should be able to move the football just about any way they want to. Odds are we won't see Carson this weekend, but the idea that he's even a possibility is pretty remarkable.
On paper and film, Mississippi State looks like an average football team, and they're 4-4. That's what they are.