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The Changing of Aggie Football’s Identity

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The A&M Football program takes on defensive, ball-control identity in win over UCLA

UCLA v Texas A&M Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

When 100,000 fans walked into Kyle Field on Saturday, I wonder how many realized they would be cheering for a program that is vastly different in Kevin Sumlin’s 5th year compared to his previous four. Long separated from the Johnny Manziel era, and from two former 5-star quarterbacks, the Aggies turned in the offseason to Noel Mazzone. The Aggies aim to run a more well-balanced, run-oriented version of Kevin Sumlin’s spread offense. On this Saturday, and on future Saturdays this season, the program will no longer rely on its offense to win a football game. Instead it asks the offense to do just enough to not lose it.

Second year defensive coordinator John Chavis returns the 51st-ranked total defense in the country prepared to accelerate towards the top of those rankings in 2016. Pre-Chavis, the Aggie faithful would ask the defense to just bend but not break, give up those meaningless 3 points while the star-studded offense was scoring touchdowns. Unfortunately, that won’t be enough for the defense in 2016. The script has flipped with the defense featuring the best players on the team, including potential #1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft Myles Garrett. If one unit is going to have to carry the team to 9 or 10 wins in 2016, it will be Chavis’ defense.

And that’s exactly how things played out on Saturday against UCLA.

For the first time in years, a Kevin Sumlin coached team will not be known for its offense. Even though the group features future NFL receivers in Josh Reynolds and Christian Kirk, the offense also consists of four offensive linemen who made their first starts on Saturday, an unknown and unproven running back corps, and an outcast QB from Oklahoma. That’s not the recipe for success, especially in a defensively-stacked SEC West. But it is Noel Mazzone’s job to piece it all together into success.

With the opening script on Saturday, Mazzone tried to get his new gunslinger QB Trevor Knight comfortable with short swing passes at the line of scrimmage and get offensive playmakers, like Christian Kirk, the football in space. The offense was flowing on the outside until an ill-timed Jamal Jeffery fumble. After, Mazzone on two of the next three drives decided to test his young interior offensive linemen by running on 1st and 2nd down. Both drives would go 3-and-out. Suddenly, 90,000 Aggie faithful were left wondering how Mazzone was any different than the shunned Jake Spavital.

Then, a crazy thing happened. There were offensive adjustments made on the sideline. Three of the next four Texas A&M drives consisted of 11 plays, 70 yards, 4:07 TOP (time of possession), touchdown; 7 plays, 62 yards, 2:01 TOP, field goal; 11 plays, 87 yards, 4:10 TOP, and a touchdown. A three play drive before the end of the half was the only thing that separated those sequences. During those three drives, the young offensive line mauled out 8.2 yards per rush, highlighted by freshman Trayveon William’s 42 yard run. The offense began to click.

This is the reason that Mazzone was brought to Aggieland, along with the return of offensive line coach Jim Turner. For the Aggies to have success in 2016, they will need to have a consistent running game that extends drives, burns the clock, and most importantly gives Chavis’ defense a breather on the sidelines. While 1st and 2nd down rushes may be reminiscent of incompetent NFL offenses, commitment to a running game is what the Texas A&M program has lacked since their arrival to the Southeastern Conference. Now, the program shifts to a more physical approach that will require 60 minutes of complete play to wear out the opponent on both sides of the football.

On Saturday, the Bruins and the rest of the SEC got a taste of what Aggie Football will be like in 2016. The Aggie O still compiled 442 yards of offense against a formidable defense. But here was the breakdown – 42 passing plays for 239 yards at 5.7 yards per pass, 41 running plays for 203 yards and 5.0 yards per rush. A near 50-50 split. This will be the game script moving forward for the Texas A&M program. Expect a lot of low scoring, down-to-the-wire games moving forward. That’s where the Aggies plan to be, with a few key defensive or special team plays ultimately deciding the game.

Questionable Coaching Decisions

One thing was certain on the first Saturday afternoon of the fall football season – this Aggie team doesn’t know how to win games yet. That may sound harsh, but both Sumlin and staff were unsure on how to manage a close game against a good team at home. Quite frankly, there haven’t been many of these game situations under Kevin Sumlin’s tenure. The coaching decisions started before the end of the 1st half when Texas A&M received the ball leading UCLA by a point with 75 seconds left. In the days of Kliff Kingsbury or even Clarence McKinney calling plays, 75 seconds would be a normal time of possession for an offensive drive, leading the Aggies to try and score before the half. But these aren’t those days, and the Aggie offense isn’t as explosive as it once was. With a close game at home, the proper decision was to take the narrow lead into the locker room and be satisfied with the team’s play in the 2nd quarter compared to how the 1st quarter started. The Aggies did just that – a 4 yard Knight run, a 3 yard pass to Kirk, and a Ford run for no gain that required A&M to punt the football with 28 seconds in the half left after a UCLA timeout. UCLA would then move the football into field goal range for a missed attempt to end the half. Reflecting, a made field goal in this situation would have equaled a UCLA win and changed the complexion of the 4th quarter. That’s how significantly this simple sequence might have swung the game.

While the decision was correct, the execution was off. Let’s go back to that 2nd down play. Trevor Knight attempts a pass to Christian Kirk to the short side of the field. Kirk’s momentum carries him out of bounds, stopping the clock. Just like that, UCLA and Jim Mora realized they can use their second timeout on 3rd down, giving UCLA and Josh Rosen a chance to score and take the lead before half. If A&M’s goal in this situation was to simply take the lead to half, why attempt a pass that could potentially stop the clock? Obviously Kirk running out of bounds was not by design, but a batted ball at the line of scrimmage would have supplied the same result. Both Sumlin and Mazzone are paid far too much (over $6 million total) to show this type of indecisiveness at the end of a half, especially in such a crucial game. A football team needs to be prepared week in and week out for these situations to know exactly what the coaches’ mindset is and what plays will be run. These are critical time points that could easily flip a game.

The same could be said for end-of-game situations. With the score 24-9 and A&M receiving the ball back with only 30 seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Aggies were in full burn-the-clock mode, rallying behind a dominant defensive pass rush that had Rosen and company on the ropes. Yet, the Texas A&M offense could only muster a 4 play drive for 24 yards and 1:32 TOP; 3 plays, 6 yards and 1:02 TOP, and 3 plays 3 yards and 0:37 TOP before UCLA tied the game at 24-24. These 10 plays featured 5 passes with 1 completed, and 5 running plays. Now there are two camps to this discussion: the one side who says a team should always run their offense, no matter the score and the other that would want to run the ball, burn the clock, and let the dominant defense win the game. The key here in these situations is that you can’t be both, and that’s where the Aggies seemed to find themselves on Saturday. For Sumlin and Mazzone, they will have to decide what exactly they want to be. This won’t be the last time this season they find themselves in this situation.

A final gripe comes from play calling near the goal line. Every single point the Aggie offense scores this season will be precious. Texas A&M must convert these opportunities to touchdowns instead of field goals. Yet near the goal line on consecutive drives on Saturday, the offensive play calling went away from the run game that was gashing the Bruins up front and instead decided to take to the air with end zone fades. All attempts fell incomplete. There is only one wide receiver on the Texas A&M roster that goes up and catches a contested football and that is Josh Reynolds. Reynolds is such a talent that he deserves several of these opportunities every game. Yet, Reynolds wasn’t a main target for these goal line fades, which makes little sense in my opinion. Sometimes even the best coaches out-think themselves, and that is certainly the case for Mazzone near the goal line. Mazzone has to trust his offense and not go away from what moved them down the field, or else 100,000 will let him know about it. Run the damn ball.

The Ceiling on the Aggies’ Season

As the Aggie faithful left Kyle Field on Saturday afternoon, I’m sure many wondered where the Aggies would be ranked when the always reliable media polls are released on Tuesday. Surely thoughts of seasons past crept in, knowing a strong showing in the opener against a quality opponent (or, thought to be quality opponent) meant little to how the Aggie season would ultimately play out.

So, what then is the real ceiling for this Texas A&M football team? Well, I’m not sure it’s much higher than what we watched on Saturday. Texas A&M defeated a quality Top 25 program. That doesn’t mean they’ll be contenders for a College Football Playoff spot or even an SEC West title. The Aggie program will simply go as far as this defensive unit carries them and the offense allows. The defense will have to perform every single game, and in every single quarter. The offense, meanwhile, will be tasked to extend drives, flip the field position to put the defense in a good situation, and try to put at least 20-30 points on the scoreboard. If those things are accomplished, Texas A&M will have a shot to win every single game. But this team will have to be perfect, and as we witnessed on Saturday they have a long way to go in learning how to close out a football game.

A better exercise may be to examine the rest of the SEC West, Texas A&M’s main competition. Three levels of competition within the division appeared on Saturday. Mississippi State lost at home by one to South Alabama, while Arkansas defeated Louisiana Tech by one. Auburn and Gus Malzhan appeared clueless once again on offense and couldn’t decide on a quarterback as three players rotated at the position, sometimes even between drives. I consider these three teams at the bottom level and three teams Texas A&M should absolutely defeat this season. Of course, I said the same about Auburn last year.

The second level consists of one team A&M still hasn’t beaten while an SEC member and another unknown that plays tonight: LSU and Ole Miss. LSU looked helpless on offense once again as neither offensive coordinator Cam Cameron nor QB Brandon Harris seem to have developed over the offseason. Yet, the Tigers are stacked talent wise, as their #5 preseason ranking indicates. Ole Miss lost several key talents; yet return QB Chad Kelly who sparked a good Rebel offense in 2015. We’ll have to see whether or not the loss of several key players and a looming NCAA investigation causes turmoil within the Ole Miss program and for Hugh Freeze to stumble. The Aggies play both this year at Kyle Field.

And then there is Alabama, who never rebuilds, just reloads. That’s a fact we’ll just have to accept. Alabama crushed USC on Saturday night and gave the Trojans their third-worst loss in program history.

As of right now, I consider the Aggies to be on the second tier of the SEC West, right there with Ole Miss and LSU. The Aggies won’t win in Tuscaloosa; let’s just get that out of the way. Three key home games (yikes!) will decide just how good Texas A&M will be in 2016 – Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU. All three are toss-ups, and could mean the difference between a lackluster 8-4 repeat or a very respectable 10-2. Of course the Aggies must also be wary and not let weak opponents on the road – Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State – have any belief they can compete and win these games which will favor the Aggies by a touchdown or.

10 Things I Think I Think

1) Myles Garrett and Dasheon Hall get the hype on the Aggie defense. Deservedly so. However, John Chavis couldn’t scheme for his defensive line if he didn’t have Armani Watts, Justin Evans, and Donovan Wilson in the defensive backfield. All three players play almost all of the defensive snaps and give the defense the versatility to do whatever they want at the other defensive positions. These three players are just as responsible for the defensive turnaround as is Garrett and Hall.

2) I don’t care that Justin Evans only had a cramp instead of popping his leg back in place in the Vine that went viral. Suffering a season ending injury and then having the game winning pass breakup a few minutes later is such a better story.

3) God bless Trevor Knight. He’s the quarterback the program needed at this time in terms of leadership. He made the locker room a better place and brought the team together. However, he is a limited player. Something to keep in mind as the season goes on as you question some of the offensive play calling.

4) If the Aggies had lost Saturday’s game after leading 24-9 entering the 4th quarter, the attendance for next Saturday’s glorified practice against Prairie View wouldn’t have topped 90,000 and I wouldn’t have blamed anybody for it, including students who have to study for exams on Saturdays and the opening of deer season in September.

5) I won’t watch but a quarter of next Saturday’s glorified practice game against Prairie View, and neither should you. We really couldn’t bring in SMU, Rice, or Louisiana Tech? We already play New Mexico State and UTSA, both borderline FBS programs. This upcoming game serves no purpose.

6) I honestly have no idea how Alabama does it year in and year out. I really thought this could be a “down” 9-3 type year for them, replacing so many players and coming off a championship season that might cause some players to slack. But not Nick Saban’s group. Does Saban never get bored with this? Do something else, man.

7) How does Saban put up with Lane Kiffin in the coaching room? Now Kiffin is bringing back his boy #SarkAfterDark ? Kiffin, however, is the best tweeter in college football. Give him props for that. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

8) There may be several SEC West coaching changes at season’s end. Both Malzahn and Miles did themselves no favors on Saturday, and who knows what the NCAA may or may not find at Ole Miss. Yet, what potential replacements are out there? Just remember you might end up with a Will Muschamp as South Carolina did.

9) The Baylor-style offense will be the next offensive craze in college football. Unlike the Mumme/Leach system, there is one major roadblock – finding college quarterbacks who can throw a ball accurately past 20 yards. That’s the ultimate limiting factor to the offense being used everywhere by 2018.

10) Mark your calendars for Thursday, November 17th. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson takes on the University of Houston and Greg Ward Jr. The two best rushing QBs in the NCAA face off, with a college football playoff berth on the line. Yes, I know its just the second week of September.

Tweets of the Game

— after Texas’ end zone fade to take a 7-0 lead over Notre Dame

A Parting Haiku

What is a haiku?

Myles Garrett likes dinosaurs?

I’ll have to find out