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Aggie Offensive Breakdown: the Ole Miss Game

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Nothing went right for the Aggie offense Saturday, but even bigger questions than play calling have emerged.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This week's article is going to be a little different. It feels like something big is happening with the A&M football team, and a simple report of some numbers and charts describing the failure of the A&M offense Saturday night seems a bit pointless. The simple fact is this: the offense did not work.

There. There's your summarized version of what my normal article would have boiled down to. (A&M was only successful on 19% of their designed passes, 44% of designed runs, which isn't actually that bad, and 28% of their plays overall.)

With that out of the way, it only makes sense to discuss the big picture of what happened with the offense and talk about the issues that everyone wants to talk about: offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. I'll hit on the issue of the quarterbacks a bit too, but Spavital is the man in charge of those quarterbacks and the man ultimately in charge of the offense.

You may recall that I wrote a lengthy article defending Spavital as a play-caller just a few weeks ago. This was when A&M was still undefeated and Kyle Allen was leading the SEC in pass efficiency. (Seems like ages ago, doesn't it?) That article focused almost entirely on the simple issue of his effectiveness calling plays and getting the offense to gain yards and score points and whether or not it was being done at an acceptable rate considering the roster he was working with. And my conclusion was a resounding YES.

There are other aspects to his job besides just calling plays though. Making sure that the plays called have been practiced well enough to be executed, making sure that the players know their assignments, teaching the quarterback where to go with the ball or what checks to make, making sure that the right players are playing, etc.

When I went back and watched the Aggie offense against Ole Miss, a few things were clear:

  • Believe it or not, Spavital called a pretty good game, from a stricly X's and O's standpoint.
  • The offensive line got beat far too often for the offense to succeed.
  • Execution is just not sharp right now.
  • Kyle Allen was not healthy and should not have been playing beyond the early part of the 3rd quarter at the latest.
Let's tackle each one. First, the play calling.

Spavital actually called a pretty good game in a vacuum.


I was actually surprised at how effective it was upon re-watching. I absolutely stand by everything I've said all season about Spavital as a play caller and a designer of an offense. There are consistently receivers open, the mix of plays is good, he uses formations to his advantage and his offense builds on itself from week to week. Again, not everything works, but that's because no offense will ever be successful 100% of the time. The defense has players and coaches too. While there were some head-scratchers called Saturday, it was mostly good.

Let's look at some examples from Saturday.

The Aggies started the game in a formation they've only used a few times all year, with Jordan Davis at tight end on the line of scrimmage and two receivers to his side. Ole Miss has six defenders in the box, and A&M has six blockers on the line. That's when you run, and the Aggies ran, gaining eight yards.


miss




The next play, the Aggies line up in their sloth formation and show a play they've been using all year, with a play action fake and roll to the left. The H-back goes in the flat, and what the Aggies have been doing all year is running the X receiver (Ratley, here) deep, and sending the slot recevier (Ricky Seals-Jones) on about a 10 yard out route while having the Z receiver from the other side (Josh Reynolds) drag across the middle.

A&M has done this several times and Ole Miss had obviously planned for it.  So this time, and this is what I meant about the A&M offense building on itself on a week to week basis, everything is the same as above, except that Seals-Jones runs a post pattern back in the opposite direction of everyone else.


miss2



The play worked to perfection, as there wasn't a defender within 20 yards of him. Unfortunately, the pass was overthrown. But that was a fantastic call by Spavital, no way around it.




On 3rd and 7 moments later, the Aggies throw a tunnel screen to Reynolds. Some may complain about that call, and it's not my favorite either, but with calls like that, fans need to understand how coaches game plan for situations like 3rd down. I don't claim to know exactly what Spavital's process is, but many coaches will have a list of plays they want to use on 3rd and medium, for example, based on what they've seen from the opponent's defense on those situations so far this year. So A&M must have really liked the idea of that wide receiver screen based on what Ole Miss had shown on film this year, so much so that they used it on the very first 3rd and medium they were presented with. It didn't work, and a screen like that on 3rd down is still open to criticism (it's a single read, and if that read gets taken away, you have nothing else, which is what happened) but it's not necessarily uncommon. Either way, I'd prefer to see something different, something with multiple options.

Going forward, A&M moved down the field and was effective after the roughing the punter call gave them new life, but a holding penalty and a sack ruined the drive.

So on the next drive, A&M starts with a jet sweep to Kirk. Good idea, but someone screwed up somewhere and let an unblocked defender blow up up the play.




Next play, a successful run, and then the next play, another 3rd and medium, was one call I really didn't like. A swing pass to Tra Carson five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The same things I said before about the screen to Reynolds still apply to this, and I'm sure it was game planned for a reason, but I would have preferred to wait to use it until they've shown the look once and seen how Ole Miss defended it. As it turned out, Ole Miss' middle linebacker was in man coverage on Carson and easily blew up the play.




But things improve after that. A&M goes back to the formation they started the game with, but a false start pushed them back. So on 1st and 15, they use a formation that has been successful earlier in the year, what I call "tackle over trips." The tight end, Davis, is not an eligible receiver here, but it's a good formation, and the play works.




Two plays later on 3rd and 5, A&M uses another rarely used formation, going with a bunched doubles look.


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Two receivers are wide open and it's a good conversion. After a two yard gain on 1st down, A&M does something else new, throwing a pass to Carson out of the backfield on what some coaches call a "Texas" route, and it works nicely. I don't recall seeing that prior to the Ole Miss game.


miss texas




The second quarter started with a play being blown up because of a missed block, followed by a screen to Carson that was set up nicely but he ran the wrong way, followed by a 3rd down conversion and a run on 1st down, and then on 2nd down, A&M fumbles on a zone read. It's actually pretty interesting as to why though.


A&M leaves the circled defender unblocked, so he will be the read for Kyle Allen. If he crashes inside, pull the ball and run, and if he stays wide, give it to Carson up the middle. A&M's left tackle is then supposed to block the first person he comes to.


miss6


But Ole Miss just beat A&M with athleticism and a big stunt. Look at #93 for Ole Miss.


miss6a


He loops all the way around not just the spot in front of him but crosses the face of three Aggie linemen and shows up on the other side. And it looks to me like his sudden presence in Allen's field of vision made Allen make a late decision on whether to give or keep, and that led to a fumble. Nice play by an athletic defensive line, but from A&M's standpoint, your left tackle has to make that block.




On A&M's next drive, they again burn Ole Miss with a new look, gaining 44 yards by motioning Christian Kirk out of the backfield, faking a screen to him, and then throwing over the top of the defenders that pursued to stop the screen. The Aggies have done similar plays this year, but not out of this particular look, and it worked. These are the types of things I keep pointing out that show that Spavital indeed does have a plan that just keeps building and keeps leading to big plays... when the players execute them.


miss8




On the next play, Damion Ratley is wide open but Allen doesn't see it because he looks to the other side first and then there is a failure by the offensive line. Next play after that, the Aggies again do something new they haven't done all year, lining Ricky Seals-Jones up as an attached tight end in a three point stance. Ole Miss sees it and covers him, but Kirk is wide open, and Allen doesn't see it.




After that, a failed pass on 3rd and long and then when A&M gets the ball back, a dropped pass on 1st down, and then another new wrinkle in the running game. The Aggies showed this play one time against Alabama and twice against Ole Miss. It builds directly off of the roll out game the Aggies have been doing in their passing attack.

Sometimes the Aggies roll out with a play action fake and then a roll away from the fake, and sometimes they just do a true roll out with everyone flowing to the play side. So to counter that, the Aggies run a... "counter" play, in which everything looks just like that roll out pass, except the right guard pulls around to the left, and the H back does too. The QB and RB start right then take the hand-off back the other way.


miss counter




On 3rd and 2, the Aggies threw a screen to Speedy Noil that was blown up by the defense only because the defense illegally held Noil but the penalty wasn't called.

That's a lot of writing and pictures to say this: from a pure play calling perspective, drawing up and calling plays that put A&M's players at an advantage over the defense at a base level, Spavital has done and continues to do a good job.

But this is the part of the story where Stephen A. Smith would say, "HOWEVER..." Let's look at point #2 from up top.

The offensive line gets beat too much.

I don't know what percentage of blame to assign to each coach. Offensive line coach Dave Christenson was brought in to spice up the running game and shore up the weaknesses of what people like to think is a talented offensive line. But so far, it just isn't working. There have been flashes, and the running scheme is definitely more diverse, but the missed assignments are far too often and far too crippling for an offense.

Seven weeks into the season, it led Sumlin to say the following at his press conference yesterday:

Maybe we’re trying to do too much up front as far as angles and reads and things like that. Just looking at it, our guys are better coming off the ball and doing things straight that way.

That's concerning, because it directly contradicts what Sumlin said before the season, on August 7:

"The new run game stuff  started in the spring. The ability for us to utilize more gap scheme stuff and not just be a zone team, to be able to use some angles and really work on pulling some people ... As athletic as we are, we ought to be able to do that. Utilizing some more two back sets, I think you saw some more of that in the bowl game and a tight end, whether that is an H-back tight end or inline tight end, we have looked at how that can happen. Getting some more blocking surfaces, using more angles and pulling people, while utilizing our athleticism a bit more. Dave Christensen has shown he can do that.

So did they mis-evaluate their roster? Are the players failing mentally or physically? Sumlin is fond of saying that "the SEC is a line of scrimmage league." Unfortunately, the Aggies are not winning the line of scrimmage on offense. That is going to limit any offense.

Spavital has tried a ton of things to mask our offensive line's problems but hasn't found the solution yet.


Execution is not sharp.

This is what I think the ultimate problem on the field is. Not play calling, but getting the players to make those calls actually succeed. That's Spav's job, and it's not happening enough.

Whether it's dropped passes, offensive line busts, running backs not hitting the proper hole, or quarterbacks not seeing wide open receivers, the Aggies are having trouble stringing together very many good plays in a row. This is another thing that ultimately falls on the offensive coordinator. While I'm defending his ability to call plays and design a good game plan, he is not succeeding in getting the team to execute that plan. And that's just as important.

I have no idea what an A&M practice is like. There's a growing trend among spread/up-tempo teams in college football that I assume A&M is part of, and that is to use your actual practice time to simply get as many reps as possible and then do the real coaching, the correcting and instructing, during film work. If someone screws up, the coaches wait until later to fix it and focus on just moving to the next rep.

This article and others talk about the trend.

Oregon’s practices last two hours, an hour less than a typical college practice, and there is so little time between plays that coaches must do their teaching with only a few words or wait until the film room. Kelly said that practice had become so sophisticated and fluid that getting off 30 snaps in a 10-minute period had become common. -

And here is another coach talking about that concept:

We will never stop team periods so an individual coach can instruct his players. The coaches will have to learn how to coach players on the fly.  We are constantly working on instructing players while we are moving to the next formation and getting the next play call.  I love it this way because it keeps assistant coaches on their toes. I have seen way to many practices where assistant coaches stand around 85% of the time while 1 or 2 coaches run the whole period.  Even the guys running the scout group have to learn tempo so they can get the scout group in the right look for each play on the practice script.  With that said, you must now be able to incorporate film time into your practice schedule so your coaches and players can see the mistakes that were made and be given ample time off the field to correct them before the next practice.

There is value in that, but I would assume a coach would also have to guard against developing an atmosphere where perfection is never demanded in real time.

To be clear, I don't know if that is A&M's practice method, nor do I know how Spavital and the other coaches do their hands-on teaching during practice. But whatever method they use, perhaps they should consider changing something and figuring out a way to hammer down the execution aspect. Because too often, it's just not there.

Kyle Allen was not healthy and should have been replaced earlier.

Here's the big one, the issue that had Aggie fans screaming at the television Saturday night. Kyle Allen has proven to be a good quarterback when healthy. But when he went through a stretch that spanned nine drives- NINE- with just two of his 22 pass attempts being completed and both of those going for negative yardage, it was obvious he is not healthy.

Seeing a doctor work on his throwing arm on the sideline didn't exactly help the cause either. So you have a guy who has already been grimacing and missing passes in the prior game due to what appeared to be an injury in his throwing shoulder, and then he goes through a near historic-level stretch of ineptitude, and those of you that watched the game know that many of his passes weren't even remotely catchable.

That's a problem. The circumstances regarding why Kyler Murray didn't play have already been beaten to death, but why didn't Jake Hubenak play until so late? Putting aside the fact that letting things play out the way they did just looked incredibly bad, the bigger issue is that it gave A&M no chance to win.

In Hubenak's limited time, he showed enough to demonstrate that he was at least capable of making throws that Allen in his injured state was not capable of making.

I don't know whose decision it was to leave Kyle Allen in for so long. Whether it was Sumlin or Spavital, they both should share blame. Their job is to put players on the field who give the team the best shot at winning, and through no fault of Kyle Allen's, he was not that guy.

So now here we are. Another October swoon for the Aggies and another midseason quarterback change seemingly in the works. Questions about who will start at quarterback and who will call plays and who may or may not be on the hot seat abound.

From where I sit, the scheme isn't broken. It's good. But that's just one piece of the puzzle. Execution, personnel decisions, and player management seem to be suddenly causing huge problems. Ultimately, the offense has failed in recent weeks. That's the bottom line.