Last week I had asked if A&M’s lackluster performance against Nicholls State was a week-long hangover from the devastating UCLA loss or a sign of major problems. I then went on to say that the game against Louisiana Lafayette would help answer that question.
Well, A&M managed to play in such a way that we still don’t really know. The first half was bad. Really bad. Losing by seven points at halftime bad. I was ready to say that we have our answer, the team was broken by the UCLA loss and has packed it in already.
And then the second half happened.
A&M went on a dominant tear in the second half, outscoring ULL 31-0 and doing basically everything right. The body language, which looked awful in the first half, suddenly looked good again. The confidence returned. And now we find ourselves asking the same questions. Was the first half still an extension of that hangover effect? And the second half was A&M officially putting it behind them, starting fresh and playing the way they should? Or, to be blunt, do we suck?
Time will tell, but let’s look at a few things we learned Saturday and how they could translate to SEC victories.
The Aggies have some real talent and depth at running back
Keith Ford. Trayveon Williams. Kendall Bussey. Kwami Etwi. Jacob Kibodi.
Ford and Williams are established studs. Bussey has proven in the last couple weeks to be a viable third option. Etwi has been a hard-running, trustworthy backup for a couple years now. And Saturday brought the debut of Kibodi, who in just four carries showed a little of everything (101 yards and a touchdown) and provided a spark in the second half.
A&M missed out on signing Travis Etienne this past February, who instead chose Clemson (and had six carries for 98 yards on Saturday with an 81 yard touchdown). Seeing Kibodi come in and make big plays the moment he stepped on the field feels good then.
The depth chart is spaced out perfectly for the Ags right now. Ford is a senior, Etwi a junior, Williams and Bussey are sophomores, and Kibodi a freshman.
Here’s a stat that should impress: A&M has played three games this year. Four different Aggie running backs have already had a 100 yard game.
Kellen Mond improved
With Nick Starkel out for extended time and Jake Hubenak battling injury as well, it’s pretty much Kellen Mond’s team at the moment, for better or worse. Obviously he struggled against UCLA (3-17 passing) and Nicholls (only two scoring drives in 2.5 quarters).
They say a team makes its biggest improvement between the first and second games of the year. I’m not sure if that holds true for true freshmen quarterbacks, but Mond had essentially played four quarters in the first two games. So one full game of experience. Saturday was his second full game of experience. And the difference was night and day. Here are the numbers:
UCLA/Nicholls: 15/38, 132 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 77.3 rating
Louisiana Lafayette: 21/34, 301 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 159.4 rating
That’s a really big step forward. The accuracy was there on short, medium and long passes. He hung in the pocket. He kept his composure after making a bad play on the one interception. He didn’t panic when trailing by seven at halftime. He finished. He improved.
For A&M to win any games in the SEC, they have to have a quarterback that can make plays through the air. The Aggie offensive line is going to struggle in run blocking, but if Mond can throw like he did on Saturday, it will not only move the chains but it will open up the run.
Obviously the competition will get stiffer this week against Arkansas, then even stiffer the next week against South Carolina, then even stiffer the next two weeks against Alabama and Florida. Mond will have to continue to improve. Saturday was an encouraging sign.
The Aggie defense might just be good
Listen, they’ve played 12 quarters of football. Let me just submit to you this: for 11/12 quarters, they’ve been pretty good. One epic bad quarter is skewing things.
In the fourth quarter against UCLA, the Aggies allowed 292 passing yards. Yes, those yards count, that quarter counts. Of course. But let’s also be honest and admit that UCLA got some lucky breaks in that quarter. Not taking anything away from UCLA but just stating facts here.
So here’s what A&M does do well: stop the run and force turnovers. A&M is 6th in the nation in run defense and 14th in yards per carry allowed. The Ags rank 1st nationally in turnover margin, fumbles forced, fumbles recovered, and 2nd in turnovers forced. Run defense and turnovers are hallmarks of good defenses.
The pass defense outside of that one fateful quarter has been adequate to good. For reference, in Rosen’s next two games (against Hawaii and Memphis), he passed for 329 yards and 5 touchdowns (22/25 passing) in a blowout win before the backups came in and 463 yards and 4 touchdowns on 56 attempts, almost identical numbers to what he put up against A&M.
When the season is still young, one quarter or half or game carries too much weight to really know how meaningful it is. I’m not saying the fourth quarter against UCLA isn’t meaningful. I’m just saying we won’t start finding out how meaningful it was until these next few games start adding up. Because again, outside of that one quarter with its multiple dropped interceptions, the Aggie pass defense has been pretty solid.
A&M has a very strong defensive line, the best linebackers it has had in years (the level of play A&M has gotten so far from Dodson and Alaka has been unbelievable, really), and a playmaker at safety in Armani Watts. Losing Donovan Wilson was a huge blow, but even so, with the ability to stop the run (as Kevin Sumlin always says, it’s a line of scrimmage league) is where it all starts, and for the first time in a while, A&M has that.
The road map to victory then for A&M will be for the defense to continue stopping the run and forcing turnovers, and for the offense to grow, grow, grow with Kellen Mond. Keep winning the turnover battle and find out how to get the ball to Christian Kirk twice as much as he’s gotten it so far, and the Aggies can still win games. Once again, we can assume that this coming Saturday will give a much better idea of just how high or low the ceiling will be.