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Charting the Offense: Five-Game Review and Expectations for Alabama

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The bye week came at a good time for Texas A&M. Here's your primer on what the Aggies do, how well they do it, and what to expect against Alabama on Saturday.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M defeated Mississippi State 30-17 two Saturdays ago at Kyle Field to improve to 5-0 on the season and entered the bye week with positive momentum as they prepared to take on Alabama this Saturday. Here are some quick summaries on the MSU game, along with some season-long numbers and trends.

First of all, the Aggies had another good offensive day against the Bulldogs. A&M ran 84 plays (technically 85 but I didn't chart the final play, considering it to be a garbage time snap), and had a success rate right at 50%, and both running and passing were right around the 50% number.

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The overall yards per play was a little lower last week, but the 6.0 ypp that A&M achieved was the highest number MSU has allowed all year. MSU is a fairly good defense, as they held LSU's Leonard Fournette to just 5.7 yards per carry, while he has averaged 9.5 in his other four games. So the fact that A&M was able to grind out a 100 yard rushing performance with Tra Carson (26 carries for 110 yards) is pretty impressive.

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A&M got back to using a lot of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end or H back) after only using that package 8 times vs. Arkansas.

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As for formations, A&M ran about half their plays from either their spread or trips formation and then had a good mix of other formations as well. A huge difference this year vs last year has been with the use of variations within the base formations, things like using "tackle over" formations (moving one tackle over to the other side to create an unbalanced line) and attaching a tight end to a formation.

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One thing that is encouraging is that as the season now starts to pile up a large amount of data, it appears that A&M is fairly consistent regardless of what formation or personnel group or run or pass. No glaring weaknesses when looking at the season as a whole.

A&M also continues to show new things each week. Against MSU, the Aggies debuted a wildcat formation out of an empty backfield (Christian Kirk took the snap, while quarterback Kyle Allen lined up out wide as a receiver), and also showed a couple "bunch" formations for the first time this year.

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Some other general thoughts about the Mississippi State game:

  • The Aggies had probably their best three or four opening drives of the season. Eighteen of the first 20 plays were successful (a ridiculous number), and nine of them were what I call "mini-explosives," which are runs of 7+ and passes of 15+ yards). The Aggies averaged 9.8 yards per play on those first 20, without having a single play over 30 yards. It was just surgical precision and execution. Seven of those 20 plays went for 10+ yards.
  • On the flip side of that, only one of the next 17 plays gained at least ten yards, and later A&M had another stretch of 19 plays with just one double digit gainer. Seven straight incomplete passes by Kyle Allen were mixed in there, and while he had a great day overall, that was a rough stretch for him in the second half.
  • As A&M has struggled somewhat on third downs this year, one reason has been that first down hasn't always gone well for A&M, leading to longer third down yardage needed. As you'd expect, during those first few drives when A&M was so efficient, their first down efficiency was fantastic. Eight of the first nine first down snaps were successful for A&M.
  • MSU was the first team that found a way to at least somewhat contain Christian Kirk. Most of this was due to simply double and triple teaming him, and while it kept him from making any huge plays, it clearly opened things up for other players. So it was really impressive seeing the Aggies still move the ball and score points despite the defense accomplishing what was no doubt their main objective.
One thing I noticed when looking at my chart has to do with how often A&M switches formations. In short, it appears that A&M has more success when varying their formations and personnel groups more often. So for example, during that opening stretch vs MSU, A&M was switching formations every play or every other play and never ran the same formation more than twice in a row. However, on A&M's last 49 plays, in which they were successful only 21 times (43%), A&M switched things up far less often, at one point running the same formation on six straight plays on one drive.

This can most easily be explained by assuming that A&M scripts their first few drives and has a very specific set of plays that they have game planned for that week. Going back to the Kliff Kingsbury days, A&M has been a fast-starting team that jumped on people early. Having a lull after a hot start is not something that just started with Jake Spavital. It's a credit to him and our staff that the opening plan often works so well, but it's also a legitimate point of improvement to note that the offense does seem to lose some of its variety after those first 20 or so plays typically.

Part of the issue is the old debate between tempo and variety. Playing with a fast tempo is something that will limit both your complexity and the defense's, and not substituting is part of that strategy. So a team like A&M that is faster than average but not blazing fast in the tempo department has to find the balance between playing fast to limit the defense but still slowing down enough to put enough variety into their own scheme. The biggest difference between last year and this year has been the sheer amount of different things A&M is doing. It's night and day when you look at how many different formations and personnel variations and new plays the Ags are running this year. And so far, it appears that the Aggies are better off focusing on that rather than just focusing on playing as fast as they can.

I should also be clear that the difference in success between early and late, while noticeable, isn't huge. Just something worth examining. For all the criticism that Spavital continues to receive from a small but vocal minority of fans, A&M is a top 20 offense this year by every meaningful metric, has improved each week, and has still been playing without Speedy Noil and with just one running back and no established tight end. The performance against MSU was very good overall and the offense has been remarkably consistent so far this year considering the personnel challenges and the schedule.


Finally, I'll leave you with some stats from the passing game. Note, these numbers include Kyler Murray's passes.

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That does it for this week. Enjoy a wonderful Saturday as we see how well these numbers translate onto the field against one of the best defenses in college football.