Today there is something serious and wonderful that we cannot talk about too much.
It’s true! Not a hoax or a Photoshop story here. That’s the official ENN-SEE-DOUBLE-AYY statistics web site in the link.
I think we were all wanting to see noticeable, if not marked, improvement in at least a couple of areas in year one of the Jimbo era: winning more battles on the line of scrimmage, being mentally and physically tougher and therefore better able to close out games, and a few other things that were keeping the previous several teams from ascending to Great status instead of muddling around as Good after the usual second half of the season collapse.
We’ve seen plenty of good things from this team. Lots of stuff still needs work, true, but overall, the toughness with which we’ve closed out games in our last three SEC wins has been a breath of fresh air. The defense really came alive during the Kentucky game, and since the passing defense hasn’t exactly been stellar, it’s time to laud the run defense with virtual helmet stickers, impressively-presented stats, and various other forms of Internet adulation.
We don’t need to relive it too much, but there’s been entirely too much of this over the past too many years: the game is close, the second half is wearing on, the defense is out on the field needing a stop. Then suddenly it all falls apart in plain view: gaping holes in the defensive front open up, opposing runners juke around the clutter and spurt out of traffic, dancing around arm-tackling defensive backs into wide grassy lanes that chew up the field. They’re suddenly unstoppable, and it all comes collapsing down. That hasn’t really happened this year. Except maybe the arm-tackling defensive backs part, but we’ll save that for another day.
#3 in the nation is impressive however you slice it. The two teams ahead of A&M are pretty good company in this regard: #1 Michigan State and #2 Iowa are longtime veterans of grind-it-out, abusively boring, run-based football death. When your run game is strong, especially within a pro-style attack, your run defense is usually pretty stout as well. These are the guys who win those 11 a.m B1G games that end by 2 p.m. just to get those extra hours of rest before the next game.
HOW EV ER. A&M’s keeping company with these stalwarts is even more impressive when you compare who the three teams have done this against:
(Their best non-conference and conference foes are in bold. How did their run defense do in these games in particular?)
#1 MICHIGAN STATE
Utah State, Arizona State, Central Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State
- ASU: 44 yards rushing. Outstanding. But they lost.
- Penn State: 205 yards rushing. Uh, not as good. But they won.
Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana
- Iowa State: 19 yards rushing. Hot damn.
- Wisconsin: 210 yards rushing. Oh.
Northwestern State, Clemson, ULM, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina
- Clemson: 115 yards rushing
- Alabama: 109 yards rushing
Well, set aside that each of A&M’s opponents individually are significantly better than any of the teams played by the B1G schools (and also: playing both in the same month), A&M is the one team whose rush defense got better when it played the tougher, conference opponent. And by far was the most consistent against good opposition. No team has come close to sniffing 200 rushing yards against the Aggies, in fact Clemson’s 115 is the most any team has managed against them. Alabama is the only one of the four SEC teams the Aggies have played to crack 100 yards. (Arkansas had 55, Kentucky had 70, and South Carolina had 76.)
This isn’t to diminish Michigan State and Iowa. Both of these teams have carved out their niche in the Big Ten and are very good at what they do. Their coaches are among the most tenured in the entire country. This is to point out how impressive it is that A&M’s run defense is in the same stratosphere as them in Jimbo Fisher’s first season.
And yeah, it’s also to gloat a little bit. Nothing wrong with appreciating your team doing something really well, especially when it’s been missing for a long time. Which is good, because guess what: Trayveon Williams is leading the SEC in rushing and the Ags have already taken care of Benny Snell, but the remaining three of the conference’s top five rushers are still on the schedule: Nick Fitzerald of Mississippi State, Ole Miss’ Scottie Phillips, and Nick Brossette at LSU.
If Elko’s defense can maintain this level of consistency against the run, it’s going to be a fun finish.