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Texas A&M Football: Gaining Respect

Aggies Gaining Respect Around the SEC after Win at Auburn

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Gaining Respect

When the action had settled Saturday night in the SEC, the conference saw close finishes but expected outcomes. Earlier in the day Alabama had taken care of Ole Miss after trailing by several scores, Georgia had beaten Missouri in the waning seconds, and LSU had survived a late scare from Mississippi State. In addition, Texas A&M had dismantled Auburn in a game it had complete control in. While not a shocking result, the way in which the steady Aggies won may have perked some interest up in the rest of the conference. This Texas A&M football team is ready to be taken seriously in the SEC West, perhaps after sinking the Auburn program and Gus Malzhan’s tenure in the process.

While a 29 - 16 victory over the Tigers is not as surprising as the upset the Aggies pulled off two years ago or the blow out four years ago when Texas A&M made their first trip to Auburn as a member of the SEC West, this year’s victory showed that the Aggies are not the stumbling program in the conference. Rather, it showed the program finally has some stability and is ready to compete as a top contender.

Does this win put Texas A&M squarely in SEC title contention? There is no doubt the Aggies could beat anyone on their schedule as long as the defense is at peak performance and the offense does not turn the ball over and can convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Yes, that means even beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Sure that task will be daunting, but the Aggies could find themselves heading to Alabama undefeated and ranked highly once again if they take care of business against Arkansas, South Carolina, and Tennessee. All worthy opponents who could upset the Aggies, but teams Texas A&M will be favored against.

Is this just a repeat of seasons past for Kevin Sumlin and his program? I don’t believe it is. With 7 minutes to go in the 1st quarter, Texas A&M found themselves trailing on the road after being gashed for a 9 play, 80 yard touchdown drive that took all of 2 minutes and 26 seconds. The offense struggled through its first few drives and punted the ball right back to Auburn. At this point, the Aggies could have let their guard down and given up another scoring drive to the Tigers, giving Auburn a huge edge at home. However, this team was calm under the pressure and continued to work holding Auburn to drives of just 4, 6, and 7 plays before scoring a touchdown and taking a lead for good. There were no hands-on-hips. There were no deer-in-the-headlights looks. Instead, the Aggies buckled up, made adjustments, and took care of the task in front of them.

That’s the true sign of a team that is ready for this stage. Finally.

Continued Struggles in the Red Zone

If there is one thing that could hold this Texas A&M team back, it will be its continued struggles in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Other than Trevor Knight’s 5 yard touchdown pass to Josh Reynolds in the 2nd quarter, the Aggies didn’t score a touchdown and could only run the ball 6 times for a total of 10 yards (1.67 yards per attempt) and were 2-8 passing including the Reynolds touchdown.

What ails the Aggies in the red zone? While 6 running plays and 8 passing plays seems a bit balanced, keep in mind 3 of those running plays came on a drive with the game already in hand and Texas A&M focused on running out the clock and extending its lead. Most of the earlier drives when the game was in doubt featured pass attempts into the end zone that honestly weren’t even close to being converted.

The Aggies must find an identity when they get near the end zone. Several different approaches could be undertaken. The first would be utilizing different formations that would help the young offensive line get a push to pound the ball into the end zone. That, of course, also comes with a commitment to run the football and decrease the number of passing attempts in the red zone. These passing attempts have only stalled the momentum of the offense as they have driven down the field. Along with the running game, the Aggies could also incorporate more of their read-option plays here. Most of these play calls seem to only occur within the 20s and disappear once the Aggies get within scoring range, aside from a 4th and goal read option keeper that scored against UCLA. Finally, Texas A&M must also identify their key players in these situations. For example, Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil are two receivers who have the ability to win contested passes, yet are not targeted often inside the end zone. Reynolds again scored the lone red zone touchdown with his 5 yard reception. Additionally, Christian Kirk’s ability to separate in a short window of space could also be utilized by designing specific route combinations to take advantage of his skill set.

The Aggies have the skill and talent to make adjustments to get better in this area. They just need to devote time to scheme as well as practice these situations, and also stop being hard-headed with their play calling choices. These things will have to be worked out over the next month before running the SEC West gauntlet of Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU.

Another startling concern that might get overlooked is Texas A&M’s 2-15 3rd down conversion attempts. That’s just plain awful and not how you win on the road. Had Auburn had a more competent offense, the Aggies could have found themselves in trouble, giving the ball right back to the Tigers after a short three plays and out. Maybe we’ll chalk this one up to Auburn’s defense, but you cannot go 2-15 on 3rd downs and expect to win on the road often. That’s not going to happen in the future.

A Stable Secondary

While constant attention is paid to Texas A&M’s stud defensive ends, the Aggie defense has to thank their secondary for helping them reach the dominant plateau. Safeties Armani Watts and Justin Evans never came off the field for the Aggie defense, and Donovan Wilson also played a majority of the defensive snaps. These three defenders have set the tone for the Aggie defense all season and all three are special players who will be playing in the NFL on Sundays for years to come. Watts plays center field for Chavis’ defense, and both Evans and Wilson roam underneath, cleaning up tackles and preventing short gains from busting into long ones. This trio, along with the pass rush, create the beast that has become Texas A&M’s defense.

One concern after the Auburn game was the defense’s inability to win one-on-one match ups in the middle of the defensive line and at the linebacker position. The defense is vulnerable here, as Texas A&M is constantly playing in either nickel or dime packages leaving the linebackers little help in terms of numbers. The defensive tackles are forced to man the middle as the defensive ends want to use their speed to rush the edge of the tackles. It’s a dangerous game to be playing for the unit and one that Auburn caught wind of during their first touchdown drive in the 1st quarter.

Auburn was theoretically a bad matchup for this Texas A&M defense due to their commitment to the run game. Yet, the Aggies found ways to shut down the Tiger run game even after their 1st quarter touchdown made it seem like the flood gates were about to open. Arkansas this coming week presents a similar challenge, just because Arkansas has the ability to force Texas A&M to play with a “base” package, even through the Aggie defense is really strongest when three safeties are on the field. How will Texas A&M address the numbers up front if Arkansas chooses to stack the line and play with multiple tight end sets or commit to a fullback all game long? While these seem like simple issues, Arkansas could try to beat the Aggies on formation alone before the ball is even snapped.

This once again puts the linebackers and defensive tackles back into the limelight. Can the rotation of Walker, Henderson, Mack and Keke beat individual offensive linemen? Can Alaka and Washington shed blocks and make tackles before the safeties are forced to? Who else steps up and fills in at linebacker? George? Moore? Dodson? This will be key for Texas A&M’s next part of the season as coaching staffs in South Carolina and Tennessee will also want to test the Aggie defense in the same way. Of course, Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin will also be watching in anticipation of the showdown in Tuscaloosa.

10 Things I Think I Think

  1. Saturday night made me really appreciate the special teams. I really thought coming into the season this unit would be shaky and could be a major reason why the Aggies fail to meet expectations. Yet, Tarpon Springs, Florida’s own Daniel LaCamera has been reliable aside from his first attempt on the season. LaCamera may be better than the last two Texas A&M kickers who are currently in the NFL. Tripucka has been solid as well, flipping field position at times and giving the defense an edge it needed when the offense stalled. I have no more fears about this group. Credit to special teams coach Jeff Banks on that.
  2. The offensive line finally got tested against Auburn’s defensive front, and managed to hold their own. They weren’t great by any means, but they stood up to the challenge. Things should get a little easier over the next three weeks, giving them time to gel before the ultimate challenge.
  3. I’m glad that Trevor Knight is continuing to find a connection with Josh Reynolds, and isn’t afraid to take shots down the field with him. Reynolds is by far the best A&M receiver with the ball in the air. He deserves several shots a game, even when being guarded by some of the best players the SEC has to offer. Reynolds is that good and needs to be a big part of this offense.
  4. Trayveon Williams is going to be a special player for Texas A&M. If you weren’t familiar with him before his 89 yard run to seal the game, you are now. He’s the type of runner we always wanted Trey Williams to be.
  5. I’m glad Kevin Sumlin keeps his composure on the sidelines for the most part. I couldn’t stand watching the shots of Gus Malzhan on the sidelines constantly looking like he was ready to cry.
  6. I’ve criticized this Texas A&M program in the past for not efficiently taking full advantage of the Johnny Manziel era, but what has Malzhan’s program done since the Cam Newton and a follow-up trip to the national title game? This Auburn program should be way better than it is. Don’t see how Malzhan sticks around much longer.
  7. Alabama, down 24-3 on the road to Ole Miss with a true freshman quarterback. This has to be where the magic runs out, yes? Nope, Nick Saban once again gets it done. He’s made it to where you have to damn near play a perfect game against Alabama to even have a chance to beat them. If anyone is beating Alabama this season, they cannot give them defensive or special team scoring opportunities. A punt and fumble returned for a touchdown was truly the difference in the Ole Miss - Alabama game. Giving them extra scoring opportunities is the kiss of death. Ask Kyle Allen.
  8. Is there anything more desirable than seeing Lamar Jackson against a Nick Saban coached defense? I’m not sure I want that to be a college football playoff game or even the national championship, but Lamar Jackson’s talent for Louisville is just the type of player that would make Saban go nuts. By the way, Louisville’s defense is pretty damn good too. They have a great shot at being in the Final 4.
  9. I’m not going to harp on Texas’ lose to Jake Spavital, since everyone has already done that. The Big 12 however? Woof. Congratulations on being totally irrelevant as a football conference in September. I’m sure your TV broadcast partners, who you are currently asking for more money from thanks to conference expansion, are thrilled. It’s so satisfying to see that conference finally showing face for what they really are.
  10. Alabama vs Stanford, Ohio State vs Louisville in the college football playoff starting tomorrow. Who says no?

Tweets Of the Game

LaCamera’s Corner