We should have known going in that this game wouldn’t go the way it “should” have gone. Texas A&M - Arkansas has become one of those crazy rivalries where weird things happen every year. Honestly I think Johnny Manziel broke the game when he did this in 2012:
Ever since then, it’s been a weird rivalry. So when I said last week that the recipe for A&M to win games would be to stop the run (didn’t happen) and win the turnover battle (didn’t happen, although I would say A&M won the turnover war, thanks to Armani Watts’ game-sealing interception in the end zone), well I should have known the game wouldn’t follow my little logical football script.
That said, here are the takeaways.
A&M has struggled at times to sustain drives offensively this year. They have been especially weak thus far in the intermediate passing game. A&M ranks 101st in the country in passes of 20+ yards and 72nd in passes of 10+ yards. That’s somewhat to be expected based on how this year has gone (three quarterbacks have played and now the Aggies are committed to riding with a true freshman). But to win games without a lot of 10-30 yard gains, you have to find something else to lean on.
For the first few games, it was turnovers. But A&M forced no turnovers in regulation Saturday. So the answer? Big plays. A&M had passes of 81 and 50 yards to go along with runs of
89 79 and 44 yards. The Aggies rank 7th nationally in plays of 40+ yards and 1st in plays of 50+ and 60+ yards.
A&M has been creating big plays on the ground all year. Saturday finally saw big plays in the air. Damion Ratley had just two catches in 2016 and this year already has two catches of 50+ yards.
I still think being tough up front and stopping (or at least slowing) the run and forcing turnovers is a big part of what A&M needs to do to win more SEC games, but having the big play capability on offense adds another layer of cheese to the seven layer dip of Aggie football.
I really don’t know why it’s happening, and it actually didn’t really happen in the first three games, but suddenly, the recurring nightmare of Aggie fans who watch their defense inexplicably let receivers run uncovered on all parts of the field showed up again.
Twice in the fourth quarter the Aggies allowed Arkansas receivers to beat them deep (45 and 44 yard passes) and a few other times, the Aggies let Razorbacks run completely uncovered in the secondary. For whatever reason, that has been a problem for the Ags for several years now. As the competition get stiffer, A&M can’t afford to give up cheap yards and points. Something to watch for the rest of the year.
One other note that may or may not be of concern for the Aggie defense: Arkansas ran 38 run plays, and not once did A&M stop them behind the line of scrimmage. 35 of the 38 gained positive yards. On the positive side, the A&M pass rush was fantastic, racking up six sacks and several more pressures, but the lack of any tackles for loss in run defense is a bit worrisome.
Playmakers make plays
They say a lot of things about superstars. “Big time players make big time plays in big time games.” Christian Kirk and Armani Watts continue to prove just how big time they are. Let us all take a moment to appreciate what these guys do.
Christian Kirk burst onto the scene and in his first collegiate game, catching a 66 yard touchdown pass and scoring on a 79 yard punt return to lead A&M to a big victory over Arizona State. His career since has been full of big time plays in big time games. He has multiple game-winning touchdown catches in overtime, is A&M’s all-time leader in return touchdowns (six already in just 30 games), has 26 total touchdowns, and has a shot to become A&M’s all-time catch leader in just three seasons. And maybe my favorite stat, one that took me way too long to calculate?:
Christian Kirk’s 26 touchdowns have covered an average of 42.9 yards per score. Yowza.
And what about Armani Watts? He too showed up as a playmaker in his very first game and never looked back. Showing his range and instincts, he intercepted a deep pass and broke up two others against South Carolina in 2014. He has nine career interceptions and had 126 tackles as a sophomore and as a senior this year has had at least one tackle for loss in each game, along with three interceptions.
But his biggest moments have been his two game-sealing interceptions in overtime. Kirk likes to score to win overtime games, Watts likes to then finish the job and intercept passes. The interception to seal the game Saturday was, and I am not exaggerating, one of the best plays I have ever seen a defender make. When you see it from this angle, it’s jaw-dropping.
His interception against Tennessee last year was almost as good. He’s not perfect, he misses some tackles he should make, but he steps up and makes huge plays. Hopefully Kirk and Watts both have a few more big moments left in them.
What we can hope for
The Aggies did the first thing they needed to do, which was beat a bad Arkansas team. It doesn’t matter how it looked, it was a win and that’s what they needed. Now they need to do the same against an even worse South Carolina team. I’d like to see A&M not just win the scoreboard but really win the game from a physical standpoint. There’s no reason this should be in doubt. A&M is more talented, has more stars, home field advantage, momentum, etc.
So the realistic hope now is to win and look good doing it, and then play Alabama the next week. Obviously we chalk that up as a probable loss, but not guaranteed. If A&M is 4-2 after Bama, they then look at the second half of the year and start to implement the new “let’s not collapse in the second half of the year” plan they’ve been working on. For now, this week is a game the Ags should win. If they take care of business, a good season is still possible. If they lose, it would effectively take the remaining air out of the season for good, barring a true miracle.