The Aggies face off against a tough SEC West opponent Saturday at night, at Kyle Field, with a fall chill in the air, in a game that actually matters. If that doesn’t butter your biscuits, I don’t know what to tell you.
The winner of Texas A&M versus Mississippi State will have their sights set on a nine win season and a top 25 finish. The loser will then resign themselves to a ceiling of eight wins and varying levels of disappointment. This is a huge game. I’ll give a few keys later but first, let’s review a few things we learned from the last couple games.
The defense is getting better and better
The defense played well for about three quarters in the first game of the year and then had such a monumental collapse in the fourth quarter that it really skewed a lot of the stats. Missed tackles and assignments are still a lingering issue for the Wrecking Crew, but overall improvement is impossible to deny.
The most publicized area of dominance is behind the line of scrimmage, where A&M leads the nation in sacks and is 10th in tackles for loss per game. But there are many other positive trends and notes for this defense.
Florida only scored 17 points, and seven of those should not have been on the board, as Florida was given a 5th down from bad officiating after A&M stuffed them on fourth down. Their other touchdown came after one missed tackle in the backfield led to a 79 yard run. Yes, it happened, but A&M was one missed tackle away from holding Florida under 300 total yards and three legitimate points.
The Aggies, going backwards on the schedule, held Alabama to 355 yards. The Crimson Tide have gained 604, 496, 613, and 677 (average of 597.5) in their other SEC games. They also averaged 53 points per game in those four but scored only 27 against the Ags.
And back to South Carolina, the Aggies held them to 17 points and just 23 yards rushing. But digging deeper, the Aggies have really shored up the problems that were evident in that fourth quarter against UCLA.
The Bruins had 21 passes of 10+ yards against A&M. Since that game, A&M has allowed 10, 8, 9, 12, 6, and 4 such passes. And 20+ yard passes have seen similar improvement. The Aggies gave up seven and six such passes in the first two games but have allowed just one in each of the last two games.
There still seem to be a couple key missed tackles each game, but no longer is A&M getting pushed around up front. The Aggies have gone toe to toe with everyone this year and have won some smashmouth games. If they can just cut out a couple bad missed tackles each week, they’d go from good to great.
Kellen Mond is cool as a cucumber
I can’t help but compare his demeanor to a couple San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. These players all have expressionless faces and never seem to worry or panic. They just move on to the next play. What a great quality for a quarterback.
When Mond was thrust into what turned out to be a nightmare situation in week one and then benched in week two, things could have gone south for him. But what amazing growth he has shown, and what amazing composure he has demonstrated.
A comeback win against Louisiana-Lafayette in his second start, after getting benched the week before. A comeback win against Arkansas in his first SEC start. A comeback win against South Carolina in his first home SEC start. A near comeback against Alabama. A comeback win at Florida in his first true road start. Every single game listed could have gone the other way if he had panicked. But showing a calm that can’t be taught, Mond has kept chipping away and demonstrated a knack for making just enough plays, with both his arm and his legs, to figure out how to win, ugly as it may be.
The efficiency will come with experience. Being able to scrap out wins while figuring it out, that’s pretty magical. Mond already has three fourth quarter comeback wins in six starts. For comparison, Johnny Manziel had three in his career and Ryan Tannehill had one. Don’t read too much into it, as it’s just one stat, but a quarterback’s job is to do win and do it in the fourth quarter if necessary, and Mond has shown a great ability to do just that.
With four more games that will likely be difficult, the hope is that Mond continues his trend and develops a reputation as one of those quarterbacks who just always manages to get it done.
The Aggie specialists are as special as ever
The legacy of punters and kickers to come through A&M is as good as any school in the country, and under the guidance of special teams coach Jeff Banks, it continues this season.
Place kicker Daniel LaCamera won the game for A&M at Florida with four field goals including the game winner. He is now 14/16 on the year which puts him in the top five in the country in almost every meaningful category. His consistency and ability to make kicks in the fourth quarter gave the Aggie coaches a way to win that game without putting too much risk in the hands of a freshman quarterback.
Punter Shane Tripucka is in the top 10 nationally in both punting average and net average. After averaging 43 yards a kick last year (his number was hurt by an abnormally high number of pooch punts, which he excelled at, by the way, as he was one of just three punters in the nation to have zero touchbacks), he’s averaging 46 yards this year. For reference, Shane Lechler’s best college season was 47 yards per punt.
As this Aggie team continues to lean on their defense and play a more conservative offensive style, winning the field position battle with the punting game and getting points every time they cross the 35 yard line with the place kicking game will be crucial to winning these last four conference games.
What do we have, what can we hope for?
Here’s what we know:
- We have a very good front seven on defense that is capable of holding its own against anyone and makes a lot of plays, but is still plagued by the occasional missed tackle or missed assignment and therefore allows some big plays.
- We have a young but talented secondary that is anchored by one of the best playmaking safeties in the country, Armani Watts. Like the front seven, they are physically capable of playing with anyone and making plays and forcing turnovers but also are guilty of missing tackles at times and still occasionally have coverage busts (they’ve gotten away with several this year).
- We have an offensive line that really, really struggles to hold their own in both run blocking and pass protection.
- We have a mixed bag at wide receiver and while there is a lot of talent, the group has dropped too many passes and is very young.
- We have a quarterback who has poise and composure beyond his years, a knack for making plays late and never giving up, good enough arm strength and accuracy, but struggles for long periods of time and, as you’d expect from a true freshman, is often slow to make decisions and isn’t decisive enough.
Sitting here with a 5-2 record that really should be 6-1 if not for... yeah nevermind that, but from that list above, is that a team that can win three out of four among Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, and LSU? Impossible to say. If my life depended on it, I think I’d bet on 2-2, which would mean a traditional 8-4 finish.
That said, if there’s one team in the country that stands to improve after a mid-October bye week, it’s the team who has been figuring out ways to win with a true freshman quarterback who, if you’ll recall, was the second string quarterback when the season started. The team who has seen their defense gradually get better every week. The team that is coming off of a week of rest after playing Alabama and Florida in back to back weeks with a record number of true freshmen on the field. The team whose running backs have both been bothered by nagging injuries but should finally be healed now. The team that has bounced back from one of the biggest gut-punch defeats you’ll ever see to win five out of six games with the lone loss being a competitive game against the best team in the country.
And how will the Aggies win against Mississippi State? Here are a few strategic notes since I don’t have time to do a full film study.
Looking back to the most recent game, Florida defended A&M with a pretty basic game plan? Line up in single high coverage (just one deep safety) and take away the run while daring A&M to throw the ball.
Stopping the run worked until A&M adjusted and used the quarterback draw. Traditional runs just didn’t work, as A&M’s line was unable to handle the defensive front of Florida. Unfortunately, I have a hard time seeing this week being any better against a Mississippi State defense that leads the nation in first downs allowed and in fewest plays defended per game.
That said, there will be opportunities in the passing game, as there were against Florida. And if A&M can take advantage of that, and keep using Mond as a running threat, traditional running opportunities will open up.
That said, how does A&M take advantage in the passing game? By doing the same things they did against Florida, but executing better. If MSU plays man coverage, as Florida did, there are big play opportunities. While Mond’s completion percentage wasn’t high against Florida, did you notice that a lot the passes he did complete were for pretty sizeable gains? That’s because if the defense is in man coverage with just one deep safety, if one man can beat his defender, he will have room to run because other defenders heads will be turned and they will be busy covering their man. So when you can successfully run the mesh concept (shallow crossing routes):
And you can successfully run a slant behind a seam route:
And you can successfully run a 12 yard out from your slot receiver to the wide side of the field:
Then as you can see, there will be room to run. Those things were there and were successfully hit multiple times and were missed other times. The other thing that is available against single high coverage are the deep routes. Fans complained about “too many fades” but fade routes are actually a pretty good thing to run when you know you have man coverage with no safety able to defend over the top:
That’s why you see so many fades near the end zone too, since the offense knows it’s a one on one situation which is always an advantage for the receiver.
But Mond has to hit the easy opportunities. Here he is just a second late on hitting Trayveon Williams out of the backfield, and then even though he’s late, it would still be a nice gain if the throw was accurate but instead it’s incomplete. A quicker, accurate throw here would be a big gain.
Here’s another where Jhamon Ausbon is open for a touchdown but Mond looks elsewhere.
Overall, it’s the natural thing to gripe at the offensive coordinator during a game like the Florida game, but when I went back and looked at play by play, even in the first half, the calls were fine. Poor blocking up front stalled some drives, missed passes stalled others, but in the passing game specifically, the calls were smart for what the defense was doing, in my opinion, and the opportunities were there, but the execution was off.
Ideally, after a week to process the last few games and reset and scheme for this one, Kellen Mond should be able to make more plays earlier in the game and then actually force MSU to adjust to something. If A&M can do that and THEN follow up with some successful runs to the running backs, the Aggies can win this game. If they take until the third quarter to execute offensively, it will be tough.