Texas A&M's opening game against Rice ended well with a final of 52-31, but you can't help feeling a bit maligned with the defense's performance. Rice put up 31 points and 509 yards of total offense on a defense crippled by suspensions. Rice, coming off of a 7-6 season with a litany of returning starters, got out to an early lead that revived the Battered Aggie Syndrome in most fans. The Aggies were able to capitalize on their physical offensive presence to overpower and outscore the Owls. It was an ugly start, but you could see clear signs that this team is developing quickly.
After finally coming out of the offseason from hell, more suspensions were announced pre-game. The new names added to an already long list of Aggie suspensions, and this time two-game suspensions were given. The final list of players suspended for the game versus Rice included:
- Johnny Manziel - QB - ½
- Deshazor Everett - DB - ½
- Floyd Raven Sr. - DB - Full
- Kirby Ennis - DL - Full
- De'Vante Harris - DB - 2 Games
- Steven Jenkins - LB - 2 Games
- Edward Pope - WR - 2 Games
- Gavin Stansbury - DL - 2 Games
Suspensions proved to be the key to the game. The dimensions of offense missing due to Johnny Manziel's first half suspensions were salvaged by brilliant running performances from Ben Malena and Tra Carson. Backup QB Matt Joeckel found a rhythm that kept drives alive and put the Aggies in a decent position heading into halftime.
Offense in Review
With Johnny Manziel caged on the sidelines for the first half, and after much speculation by the fan base this week, Matt Joeckel got to open up as starting QB. His first series on the field was a bit rocky; completing only one pass for 4 yards to Malcome Kennedy and getting flushed out of the pocket to force our first punt. After a few series, and a few misplaced balls, people were starting to question whether or not it was time for Kenny Hill to burn his redshirt.
Coach Sumlin in the presser, when being asked about why he stayed with Joeckel said, "He was in a rhythm, and I thought he deserved to keep playing." Sumlin proved why he is a coach we are spectators. After going 6/10 for 51 yards in the first quarter, Joeckel put on a terrific performance in the second. He developed a feel for the offense, and started to find his big wide receivers in space; completing 7 passes in a row for a total 137 yards and a TD in one stretch. He finished the day going 14/19 for 190 yds with one 71-yard TD to Ricky Seals-Jones.
Joeckel went out and did exactly what he needed to do. He gained a few key first downs in the air, and kept the game from breaking open before the second half. We don't yet know how he will fare against tougher SEC opponents with more complex defensive packages, but for today he put on a good show, and should be commended for it.
The running corps of Texas A&M turned in tremendous first half performances. The one-two punch of Ben Malena and Tra Carson put up a combined 158 yards rushing and 3 TDs. Ben Malena had a strong outing with 6.8 yards-per-carry on 12 carries. Tra Carson was the standout performer at RB and probably for the entire offense. At 230 pounds, he showed a downhill power running game that adds a new dimension to the Aggies' arsenal. Perhaps more importantly, Carson showed great potential as a pickup blocker. Brandon Williams, who was out with a sore ankle, is a homerun threat speedy back who is expected to return this week. Trey Williams also saw some action today, but got a little banged up after a kick-off return in the first quarter and did not return until the end of the second. After seeing the performances of Malena and Carson, I have to wonder how many carries Williams will get when added back into our running back jambalaya.
The real strength of the running game came out of the offensive line. During the offseason, after the loss of Luke Joeckel to the NFL, Jake Matthews transitioned to left tackle. He showed consistent strength up the field, finding himself in the secondary on a number of occasions. He got fooled at least one time on a stunt that led to a sack, but that happens to the best of tackles. Overall, he had a terrific outing, and is making the transition to LT look easy.
The other story of the day was junior Cedric Ogbuehi. His move to right tackle, and his monstrous performance today, tells me that Johnny Manziel could very well be finding his way back to New York this year. His length and athleticism were on display, and he should have no issues handling 5-techniques out of the SEC this year.
After one of the worst offseasons on record, and after serving a ridiculous half-game suspension, Johnny Manziel found his place again behind his offensive line. After sitting the first half, he obviously came back out to show the world what it had been missing. His first drive ran flat, which Sumlin described as "pressing," in an obvious attempt to answer all of this critics. He made a few Johnny-esque scrambles to the delight of Kyle Field, but a sack ended the drive. He went back to the bench, slightly dismayed at the performance, and was visibly more focused than he had been prior.
Manziel wouldn't have to wait very long. His next drive was a gift from Clay Honeycutt after nabbing an errant pass from Rice QB Taylor McHarque. On the fourth play of his second drive, Johnny found Mike Evans on a crossing pattern that showed quickly his ability to make a second read. Manziel found the endzone a remarkable 3 times in the second half in only 8 attempts, going 6/8 in the air for 94 yards.
The real Manziel story today should have been about his efficiency, pocket presence, and accuracy. Unfortunately, a few unwelcomed celebrations found him penalized and benched in the fourth quarter late. ESPN ran with the narrative that Manziel isn't a leader and reminded us all how ridiculous it can be for middle-aged men to question the character of a person they have only experienced through social media and game highlights.
There isn't much to add about Malcome Kennedy, Mike Evans, and Ricky Seals-Jones. They were who we thought they were. I was most impressed by Ricky's ability to move his body around defenders to find the ball. His frame, and his ability to navigate through coverage will make him tough to defend, as expected. One question coming out of the WR core is Pope. Pope, now serving a two game suspension, is going to have a hard time finding his way back into the rotation.
Defense In Review
The real tale of the defense was in who was missing. The suspensions of Kirby Ennis and Steven Jenkins were notable from the get-go as Rice's RB Charles Ross ate through our line; finding himself large chunks of yardage and the endzone twice. I think we were all surprised by Rice's departure from the run on a few drives. We couldn't stop it at all. It was absolutely the biggest hole in our game and will make guys like T.J. Yeldon step onto the field as Heisman hopefuls in Week 3. I didn't see any noticeable second half adjustments to fix these issues, but the return of Deshazor Everett made a world of difference.
Our defense was severely crippled with the suspensions, but Deshazor's return in the second half illuminated his ability to shut down his receiver. Rice's big WR Jordan Taylor was a noticeable force in the first half, where he caught six of his seven catches for the day and one TD. Deshazor's return to the field completely changed that. He outmatched Taylor which helped the defense keep an LB down to spy on the running backs for a portion of the second half.
The worst part of Deshazor Everett's return to the field was his return to the suspension list. A hit on Rice WR Klein Kubiak late in the game was penalized as targeting, resulting in an ejection from the field and a suspension for the first half of SHSU. Hopefully the appeals process, whatever it is, will undo the suspension of Everett after a ridiculous call which you can judge for yourself.
Regardless, the defense is still going to be missing some pieces next weekend against SHSU. This SHSU team put up 28 against the Aggies at the end of last year and lost the FCS championship to the North Dakota State team that upset Kansas State on Friday. SHSU, like Rice, has a large number of returning starters, including 8 on offense and 9 on defense. They have been ranked as preseason favorites to win the FCS in a number of polls, and the defense needs to stay focused and not look past them to Alabama.
All of that said, Johnny will be back for the full game, and the Aggies can out gun them all day. The biggest issue will be the snaps that our defensive players lose prior to the Alabama game, and I really wish they would have made better offseason decisions. C'est la vie.
We all noticed two things: Taylor Bertolet (BERTOLEG as String would say) was impressive and Drew Kaser is our new Shane Lechler, potentially.
Bertolet legged one from 44 yds and knocked in all of his extra point opportunities, going a perfect 7 for 7. Taylor was a target of some offseason jokes, but so was Randy Bullock before he went on to win the Lou Groza award for best placekicker. If Bertolet keeps having games like this he will leave this school as beloved as Randy.
The special teams story that had everyone buzzing was Drew Kaser. A few people saw this coming, but I sure didn't. The man could punt a nail into a two-by-four. He put up three punts yesterday, sticking Rice within the 10-yard-line once and within the 20 all three times. His longest punt on the day was 76 yards, giving him the 6th longest punt in school history. And this wasn't a punt that went a mile because it rolled after hitting the ground. We can't wait to see what Kaser's leg can do for the Aggies, adding yardage for a defensive front that is going to need that help to end drives.
All in all, this was a decent outing for the Aggies no matter what you read on social media. The offense we saw with Johnny Manziel was the offense we were expecting. The addition of Tra Carson gives us a power game, and I have no major concerns at all about the offensive line protecting Johnny Manziel. The defense needs help that will only be remedied by returning starters. The Aggies showed a lack of depth that will be a major concern for the season. The special teams unit did a terrific job of both sticking punts deep and getting extra points on the board. Fix the D and the Aggies are a team that can compete with the best. Easy enough, right?