In what has become commonplace for the Texas A&M offense lately, the Aggies had another frustrating day Saturday, managing just 10 points against an Auburn defense that was not exactly dominant prior to visiting Kyle Field. Here's what I saw.
For the most part, Auburn couldn't stop A&M. A&M stopped themselves.
Here's what I mean by that. First of all, looking at Kyler Murray's drives, A&M had a very high success rate. 56% overall (A&M's two best games in this category have come in Kyler Murray's two starts).
On A&M's first drive, the Aggies moved right down the field. What stopped the drive? A dropped pass on third down. A perfectly placed throw by Kyler Murray hit Ricky Seals-Jones right in the face and then fell incomplete. So instead of first down in the red zone, A&M settled for a long field goal.
On the next drive, A&M again drove right down the field and again entered the red zone on a nice 16 yard completion to Josh Reynolds... but it was wiped out because of an ineligible man downfield penalty on A&M. Two plays later, Kyler Murray made the right call and threw the ball to Damion Ratley in single coverage, and Ratley failed to win the battle as the pass was ultimately wrestled away from him and intercepted. To be clear, that was a proper read and throw by Murray. NFL quarterbacks throw passes like that every single week and the expectation is that the receiver either catches it or it falls incomplete.
Next drive? A&M again drives right down the field, getting all the way to the Auburn nine yard line before Kyler Murray again threw an interception at the goal line, this time his fault. Every quarterback who has played has made bad decisions like that, and it's unfortunate, but now we're three for three on drives where A&M moved the ball but made drive-killing errors.
On the next drive, a three and out, credit the Auburn defense.
On the next drive though, A&M again moves the ball right down the field, getting to a 2nd and 1 at the Auburn 23 before getting stuffed for no gain on three straight runs, each of a different variety. Four out of five drives either entered the Auburn red zone or got close but failed due to execution errors (or an inability to gain one yard). Three total points scored out of all that offensive movement.
The offense opened the third quarter by seeing another interception thrown by Murray, this time when trying to force the ball into a covered receiver on third down, but then on the next drive, again Auburn couldn't stop A&M, and the Aggies drove 83 yards and scored a touchdown. Murray got hurt on that drive and didn't return.
So the failure here by the A&M offense wasn't one of complete ineptitude. It was an inability to finish drives. And it was a combination of things. Receivers, offensive linemen, the quarterback... they all were at fault at different times.
Despite moving the ball, A&M failed to test Auburn's defense.
Yes, A&M had some success, but they didn't bother to even try certain things, and I can't understand why. Here are three examples:
The Aggies ran four QB draws against South Carolina, with success on three of them and an 11.75 yards per carry average. Yet they didn't do it a single time versus Auburn. The Aggies typically run the play out of an empty backfield formation, and they did go empty eight times Saturday, but never forced Auburn to defend the run from that formation.
The quad formation
I wrote about this in the scouting article last week. Against South Carolina, A&M sent Tra Carson in motion out of the backfield to become a fourth wide receiver on one side of the formation. Six times A&M ran that look, and five times they were successful. It clearly stressed the South Carolina defense and forced them to make alignment decisions that A&M was able to exploit.
Yet A&M didn't do it a single time Saturday. Why? Why not at least throw that look at them a couple times and just check to see if they are vulnerable to it? If easy yards can be had, take them. Formations like that are a good example of forcing the defense to react to you, rather than the other way around. Force their hand. Make them prove they can stop it.
Some fans hate the bubble screen because of some bad memories from last year, but here's the thing. A&M could have lined up in trips formation and thrown bubble screens against Auburn all night long and gained 8 yards per play doing it. Auburn's alignment consistently put only two defenders over A&M's three receivers when in trips formation, yet A&M didn't bother exploiting it until the second half.
On A&M's lone touchdown drive (in the third quarter), it was like they suddenly realized Auburn was offering free yards, and A&M ran literally all 14 plays that drive from trips formation, and all they did the entire drive was package zone reads with either bubble screens or the stick concept (inside receiver run a 5 yard stop, #2 receiver run a quick out, and outside receiver go long). Both the bubble and the stick were available due to Auburn's alignment, and both (along with the run game) were used successfully multiple times on that drive. Lo and behold, A&M drove right down the field and scored a touchdown and all the quarterback had to do was make short throws he could make in his sleep. A&M was successful on 11/14 plays on the drive, and two of the unsuccessful plays were first down plays where A&M gained four and three yards, respectively. So, semi-successful still.
The point of plays like the bubble screen is to take them if the defense is clearly giving them up. Do it until it forces the defense to adjust. A&M's failure to take the easy yards and dictate the game that way really hurt them. See, A&M did still move the ball a lot, as I detailed above, but they did it the hard way. Kyler Murray had to make some really tight throws, some of which he made, but some of which ended as turnovers.
If a team lines up defensively with an obvious weakness, you must attack that first. Go straight for it until they change. If they have too few defenders in the box, run the ball every time. If they only have two over three to the outside, go right at that. Once you show that you will exploit those things, it forces a defense to change their alignment. That's when an offense is then dictating how the defense plays, and that's when the offense can then continue attacking the inherent weakness in a defense.
Kyler Murray affects the defense.
This is not a knock on Kyle Allen. It's just a recognition of what we all know to be true about a dynamic runner at the quarterback position. Since Kyler Murray took over the starting job, his running ability has really opened things up for Tra Carson.
Carson has eclipsed 100 yards in both games with Murray starting, and has been over five yards per carry in both. Carson had not had a single game of 5 ypc against a Power 5 opponent so far this year and was averaging just 3.6 ypc in such games, but has averaged 5.5 in the last two.
Certainly, playing weaker run defenses has helped. It's hard to quantify, but some of the running room has to be attributed to defenses worrying about Murray.
Another great stat: in the last two games, only one running play has been tackled behind the line of scrimmage. How else has that benefited the team? Thanks to an efficient running game that keeps moving forward, the Aggies were rarely in third and long. With Murray playing, A&M ran 13 snaps on third down, and 11 of them were needing four or fewer yards.
The season is almost over, sadly, but if you're an eternal optimist like me, there's still hope for a ten win season. Whether or not A&M can get there will depend on if they can execute better, plan better, and protect the ball.