Coming a full four or five days after the game, this article can’t say much that hasn’t already been said. But the fact that so much has been said is a good thing, as Texas A&M forced themselves into the national discussion with a near-upset of #2 Clemson on Saturday night at Kyle Field.
Losing 28-26 in front of a raucous Kyle Field crowd left the team and fans alike in the the strange position of both feeling sick to the stomach at the gut-punch nature of the loss (two missed field goals and two red zone turnovers represent anywhere from 12-20 points the Aggies left on the field) yet also feeling a confidence in the future that hasn’t been felt since the end of the 2012 season.
A&M was supposed to lose. True, they did. There were a lot of people who thought A&M would keep the game competitive. True, they did. But few (if any) expected A&M to essentially outplay the Tigers.
Few would have expected to outgain Clemson, but A&M did, by almost 100 yards. Few would expect the Aggie offense to gain even 400 yards (it had been 25 games since an opponent gained 500 yards against Clemson), but the Aggies did, gaining 501. Probably zero would have expected A&M to do so much of it through the air, as no team had passed for 400 yards against Clemson since 2013. But A&M did, passing for 430 yards, including over 300 in the second half alone.
The last team to pass for 400 against Clemson? They were coached by Jimbo Fisher too, and the quarterback was Jameis Winston, in the middle of his Heisman-winning season.
All that to say that even in defeat, the Aggies opened the eyes of the college football nation and didn’t just stay competitive, they played a game that they could’ve/should’ve won. And in the process, some questions were answered.
Kellen Mond as a passer
I, like many people, wrote about how impressive Mond looked in the season opening cakewalk victory over Northwestern State. Even against poor competition, it was clear he was operating at a much higher level than he did as a true freshman.
But the question still remained as to whether or not he could lead a team from behind using his arm, against a quality defense. And honestly, in the first half, while he looked pretty good, he hadn’t shown enough to answer that question. The Aggies had more punts than points in the first half (4 to 3), and Mond was 7-17 at one point. Meanwhile, it was clear that A&M couldn’t run the ball on Clemson. Things looked bleak.
At halftime I commented to a friend that since the run game just isn’t a viable option, we’re going to have to win with the passing game, and I wondered aloud if Mond was up for that or if Starkel might even see the field.
Two quarters later, Mond was the talk of the town and the clear leader of the team. Time after time, he hung in the pocket and found receivers open down the field. Not every throw was perfect, but the vast majority were anywhere from good to great.
His adjusted QBR, a metric ESPN uses to grade quarterbacks, was 91.7. As a true freshman, he was only above 62 two times, and those were both 75.8s.
A couple things in particular stood out to me. One was his pocket presence. As a freshman, he actually was comfortable in the pocket, unlike many young quarterbacks, but he would hang out back there and not know where to throw the ball. Now, it’s totally different. He hangs in the pocket, steps up, and throws it. Confidently.
Yes, he is still late on some throws. Several examples of that in the Clemson game show he still has room to grow. But the growth I see is that instead of being so late that the throw is not an option, now he’s just a hair late (when he is late at all) and is still able to throw the ball to the right player, even if the timing isn’t always optimal.
The other aspect of his improvement that stands out, and it ties in to the last one, is his awareness of where everyone is on the field. As a true freshmen, it seemed that the game was going faster than Mond could process, and when his first look wasn’t open, he just didn’t know where to go next.
Now however, Mond seems to know where his receivers are going to be so that even when he does have to scramble, he can turn his back to everyone, escape, and then regain a downfield look and know where his eyes need to go to find someone.
The cat is out of the bag now. Kellen Mond is known nationally and in one night, erased people’s memories of what he was as a quarterback last year. The one thing I would caution is this: yes, he played fantastic. Yes, he seemed to have magic. Yes, he made amazing throws. But with any player playing a great game, it’s unfair to him to expect that from him every week. Is it possible that he continues to play like that? Sure. Johnny Manziel did. But it’s not likely. His wide receivers had the best day of catching the ball by any group of Aggie receivers I can ever remember, honestly. I’m just saying, we shouldn’t judge people by their worst game nor should we hold them to the standard of their very best. I’m as high on Mond as anyone, but let’s be reasonable as a fan base and not put the pressure on him to be that heroic every time. He may have rough times still. But man, he is a different quarterback than he was last year, and the sky is truly the limit now.
Turns out A&M DOES have some good wide receivers
This was a huge question mark coming into the season and the easy victory in week one didn’t do anything to answer the question. So there we were, trailing 14-3 at halftime, against a team that has gone to three straight playoffs, with a running game that was going nowhere, desperately needing to score points.
And just like that, the picture at wide receiver became clear. The day began with A&M having two receiving threats, wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon and tight end Jace Sternberger. Two quarters and about seven or eight spectacular catches later, the Aggies now have a group that includes Quartney Davis, Kendrick Rogers, and Cam Buckley that can also be trusted.
The trio combined for 13 catches for 252 yards and three touchdowns against a championship-caliber defense, continually getting open and making tough catches in traffic when they weren’t open.
Rogers, wearing #13, held up the legacy of the jersey number once worn by Mike Evans, whose ability to make tough catches made him legendary in Aggieland. There were reports of Rogers doing such things in fall camp, but seeing him do it on the national stage was a revelation.
It was almost like you could see it click for Mond when he realized he could trust his receivers to go get the ball, and he started throwing it up for them and letting them make plays. And to say they came through is an understatement. The number of diving catches, leaping catches, bobbled catches, and big catches in big moments helped make that game such a dramatic show.
A&M now seems to have clarity at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions, which just leaves the offensive line.
The offensive line is good enough
Just having an average offensive line this year would be a major coup for the Aggies, whose struggles up front last year were well-documented. Going up against the Clemson defense was going to be tough, but in my view, the Aggies came out of it far better than expected.
No, they couldn’t move the Clemson defensive line and open up any holes for the running game. At all. And to Jimbo Fisher’s credit, after trying it for the entire first half, he essentially decided to just trust that the line could protect Kellen Mond and win the game through the air.
And protect him they did. Again, not perfectly or even close, but well enough. Put it this way: you don’t pass for 430 yards if you’re unable to protect your quarterback. These same defenders for Clemson held Auburn to 79 yards passing last year while sacking Jarrett Stidham 11 times. Yes, 11, and Auburn only attempted 24 passes. And that Auburn team scored just six points against Clemson and then went on to win the SEC West. (Auburn also had just 117 total yards in that game against Clemson).
Clemson did sack the Aggies four times, but A&M attempted 40 passes. Going forward, A&M feels like they can protect the quarterback. They will still try to establish the run against anyone they play, but they now know that even if nothing is happening in the run game, they can protect the quarterback and pass every down if they want to. And that’s huge.
Biggest concerns going forward
First has to be linebacker depth, which was my main caveat in predicting a 9-3 season. The Aggies were already thin at linebacker, and suffered a major blow as Anthony Hinest was just announced as out for the season with a leg injury. A&M is dangerously low on scholarship bodies in the linebacker corps, and an injury to either Tyrel Dodson or Otaro Alaka would be devastating.
The only other concern I’d list is in the secondary. After I wrote about how A&M’s biggest strength in pass defense would be the lack of big plays allowed, the Aggies have made me look like a real big doodie head because they rank dead last in the nation in allowing big pass plays. Dead stinking last.
Ok, one of them shouldn’t have counted, thanks to a missed call by the referee on Saturday night. But even if you take that one away, A&M still ranks 127th out of 130 teams in passes of 40+ yards allowed.
Until proven otherwise, it’s a problem. If A&M can shore up that one issue, they have shown enough talent to realistically compete with every single team remaining on their schedule.