Well hello again, GBH readers. You may have noticed I was absent last week. I was on an elk hunting trip (unsuccessful, though not as unsuccessful as A&M's third quarter defense against Mizzou) and didn't have internet access. I was able to watch the Auburn game in the car as we drove to New Mexico, and let me just use this opportunity to tell you that the CBS Sports Mobile app (I used it on my Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 tablet) was amazing. I streamed the entire game and watched it in HD while in the back seat of a truck in west Texas.
I'll be back to my regular scouting articles next week. But this week, I wanted to review some of the play calling and scheme tweaks we've seen in the last couple weeks. I was very critical of, well, everything after the four game stretch that concluded with the lackluster win against ULM, but in the two weeks since, the Aggie offense has opened up the playbook and started doing more creative things. Despite some ongoing struggles, but I like what the Aggies are doing now.
Let's start at the end of the Mizzou game, since that's fresh on everyone's mind. The fateful 3rd-and-1 and then 4th-and-1 play calls have received a lot of criticism. I actually loved the 4th down call (and will explain shortly), but the 3rd down call should have been changed.
On 3rd down, the Aggies only needed about one foot. They tried to just run a basic inside zone hand-off, but it was stuffed. There has been criticism of the fact that we chose to leave Brandon Williams in the game (who finished with 7 carries for 8 yards) rather than Tra Carson. To me, that's not the issue, even though I understand the complaint. The issue is that we tried to go up-tempo and snap the ball quickly, relying on catching the defense before they were completely ready, and by doing that, didn't notice that we were outnumbered at the point of attack.
What ended up happening was that we ran Williams straight into a no-win situation. Look at the pre-snap alignment of the defense. A&M is in a balanced 2x2 set, with the running back to the quarterback's left. Mizzou appears to be in man-to-man coverage across the board, leaving six defenders that aren't manned up on someone. But Mizzou puts the strength of their defense to the offense's right (into the short side of the field).
A&M only has three blockers to block four defenders. A similar thing happened on Monday Night Football this week to the Tennessee Titans. They are being led by a rookie quarterback right now, much like A&M is led by a freshman. On a short yardage situation, with a spread formation, Tennessee got stuffed on a run. Jon Gruden pointed out that running out of the spread is fine, but not if the defense brings more defenders into the box than you can block. He said that the quarterback should have checked out of that play into something else.
The same thing applies here. I realize A&M was trying to snap the ball quickly and use the tempo to their advantage, but the quarterback needs to still do a box count and realize that the play is doomed to fail. Tra Carson would have likely been stuffed as well. Credit Mizzou for being well-coached and knowing that we were likely to run that play if we snap the ball quickly. What should Kyle Allen have done? Either move the running back over to his right side so that he would be running to the left of the center (assuming the defense didn't adjust) and then we would have three blockers for three defenders. If not that, change the play completely. In fact, a speed option to the left would have worked masterfully there.
So moving to the 4th down play, let me just start by saying I loved the call. Too many people are quick to criticize a call if it doesn't work, but sometimes good (or even great) calls just don't work. Sometimes the defense just beats you. So here's why I loved it.
First of all, it's a play we haven't run all year. We had obviously been saving it for a special occasion, and considering that we took a timeout prior to the play and discussed it for two minutes, our coaching staff must have loved it too.
Secondly, it was run out of a formation we haven't used all season. In my other articles you'll recall that I track formations and personnel groups. I've pointed out that the Aggies really don't run many formations. You'd be hard pressed to find a team that runs fewer. Therefore, putting a formation out there that you know for a fact Mizzou didn't prepare for is a move I like.
Thirdly, A&M ran a receiver in motion in a way they haven't done all season. The Aggies aren't a team that sends players in motion other than the running back occasionally leaving the backfield or a receiver running across for a jet sweep. You know it seems like every week in the press conferences, Mark Snyder is saying that the other team ran stuff he's never seen them run? Well, that was A&M on this play. It was a formation that I'm fairly sure has not been run at A&M in the entire Sumlin era, with a motion that hasn't been used this year. When you do that, you are thinking the defense will not be prepared.
Oh, and fourthly, I loved the play because I have written about this very thing earlier in the season. I've pointed out that we run one or two plays per game where we roll out and flow everything one way, and that I'm just waiting for us to run a play where we do something on the back side to take advantage of the defense flowing towards our play side. Well, this was one of the exact things I've proposed. A throwback screen to the tight end.
You'll also notice that A&M ran the strength of the formation into the short side of the field. I'm sure the coaches had a reason for this, and I'd be curious to hear it, because for me, if there were one thing I'd change about the play, I would flip the formation and run the bunch receivers to the wide side and throw the screen back into the short side. The reason I would do that is that when A&M ran the receivers and rolled Allen into the short side, because of the compressed real estate, Mizzou was able to defend that side of the field without as much backside flow and pursuit as they would have need to use if the Aggies rolled to the wide side. And this play was counting on backside flow and pursuit to vacate the area by the tight end. As it is, Allen threw the pass back to Cam Clear, and Mizzou made a great play. I loved the call, but like I said, if there were one thing I could change, I would have flipped it to try to force that safety to run away from the tight end a little more. A&M may have run the play this way simply because it's an easier, quicker throw for the quarterback to make to throw back to his left rather than to be rolling left and have to stop, turn and throw.
The other problem was execution. One missed block by the left guard took the play from possible success to definite failure. The guard and tackle both get out and start the play flawlessly. But at the moment of truth, rather than blocking one player, the left guard blocks no players.
Nevertheless, I've seen a lot of criticisms of the call. Some said that we shouldn't have put the ball in Clear's hands since he's been a disappointment this year. Nonsense. Disappointment or not, you use your guys if you think there's a play to be made. Some say A&M should have just run Carson twice in a row. Perhaps. There is more than one way to skin a cat, for sure. I go back to the 3rd down call that should have been changed.
A&M did a lot of other creative stuff though. The offense has increased its use of play action and pump fakes/double moves. They ran another play that I haven't seen, hitting Malcome Kennedy on a wheel route from the slot position down in the red zone for a touchdown. A&M ran a double pass trick play that was set up perfectly but not quite executed. The Aggies are even running screen passes to the running backs now. They haven't all been perfect, but it's something I've been dying to see. Execution on those should get better and hopefully for the LSU game they will be a big weapon.
Going back to the Auburn game, the Aggies just got back to the basics of this offense. You know how if you play the NCAA Football video game, after you've run one play a few times, its counter play (usually a play action pass in the game) will flash with a message indicating that the play has been effectively set up? Well, that's how A&M's first drive against Auburn was. Bubble screen left, bubble screen right, and then Coach Spavital's "pump fake the bubble and hit the pass over the middle" play, whatever he calls it, had been perfectly set up, and boom! Touchdown.
You'll notice that some weeks the Aggies throw lots of bubble screens and wide receiver screens, and some weeks they don't. That all comes down to game planning and looking at how the defense aligns and how they defend the play. I believe Auburn was giving up the bubble screen intentionally with how they aligned, thinking that if A&M ran it, they could still stop it by pursuing hard to the ball and defeating the blockers (who hadn't exactly been doing a good job over recent games). Some teams will walk a linebacker out over the slot receiver, which takes away the bubble screen but gives the offense one fewer box defender to worry about. Other teams will leave the defender in the box, relying on physical corner play and hard pursuit to limit the yards gained should the ball go outside. But hard pursuit can be used against you. Look at how Auburn aligned on A&M's first few plays with trips to the field.
Those alignments would lead the offense to go ahead and take the bubble screen, since there are only two defenders out there with three receivers. After quick success to the outside, A&M showed the same look again, and this time Auburn brings a safety down hard to stop the bubble screen, and Allen pump fakes it and Malcome Kennedy runs right past the safety for a touchdown.
A masterful job by A&M's coaching staff of seeing how Auburn plays the perimeter and taking advantage of the fact that they are trying to keep a defender in the box and pursue hard to the outside on screen passes.
I can't help but go back to the infuriating ULM game and see that what Kevin Sumlin did that week actually worked. They scrapped all of their normal stuff and told the team that we are going to play this game, for better or worse, as a physical running team. No matter what. I personally believe we would have seen the same game plan if Kenny Hill had played. Because it wasn't about the scheme that week. It was about the attitude. It was about returning to a physical mindset, a focus on effort. And as painful as it was to watch, it clearly put the life back into the Aggie football team. Then A&M showed up against Auburn and got back to the normal Air Raid offense, and lo and behold, the mojo was back. The run game works, the basics work, the counters to the basics work, the team is playing hard, and A&M beat the #3 team in the nation on the road.
Sure, they lost at home the next week, but I think we can all agree that the Mizzou loss was not like the other three losses. A&M didn't lay down and quit or play scared. They just lost because A&M's defense isn't good enough and because the team didn't execute well enough. But the Aggies played hard and continued to see flashes of good things from the offense and Kyle Allen in particular.
I don't know if A&M would be doing the same things with Kenny Hill if he were playing, but the Aggies are a little more diverse on offense now and doing a lot of the things it seemed like they weren't doing through October. I think LSU is a terrible matchup for A&M and it would be an upset to beat them. I also think that with renewed life, better attitudes, more creative play calling, and 10 days to gameplan, A&M can do some things against their defense. The Aggies just have to execute. The scheme is good.