Texas A&M kicked off the Jimbo Fisher era with exactly the type of win they hoped for, running their way to a 59-7 win over Northwestern State at Kyle Field on Thursday.
A 73 yard touchdown run by Trayveon Williams on the third play of the game was a sign of things to come as A&M ran over, around, and through Northwestern State for 503 yards rushing and 758 total yards of offense, both of which lead the nation through one week.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks Kellen Mond, who started, and Nick Starkel both looked good, and Wrecking Crew allowed zero points through three quarters despite being short-handed at linebacker. What did we learn?
The run game is different
There was a lot of offseason talk about about the change in style that Jimbo Fisher would bring, particularly revolving around the use of tight ends and a more traditional power running attack.
It did not disappoint, producing running lanes and big yardage for multiple running backs and near record-setting results, albeit against an admittedly inferior opponent. A quick look at the numbers, which are staggering:
- 503 rushing yards. The Aggies had not had even a 400 yard day in at least the last decade, and the 503 is the most ever by a Jimbo Fisher team.
- 22 runs of 10+ yards. This isn’t a commonly tracked stat but a good number in a given game is 10. The season high for A&M last year was nine. The national leaders each year average about 10 per game, and no team besides A&M had more than 15 this week. Clemson had six against Furman on Saturday. 22 is almost unheard of.
- 758 total yards. The most ever by a Fisher team, by about 100 yards, and the second highest total in A&M history.
- 240 rushing yards for Trayveon Williams, on just 20 carries. The 12 yards per carry was the best by an Aggie since Johnny Manziel averaged 13.5 ypc against Oklahoma in the 2013 Cotton Bowl on his way to 229 yards. With his performance Thursday, Williams moved from 23rd to a tie for 17th on the all time A&M rushing list (2,095 yards), currently sharing that spot with Bucky Richardson. Next up for him to pass? Johnny Manziel, who ran for 2,169 in his two seasons.
- 8.2 yards per carry as a team. Not since the 2016 Arkansas game (9.9 ypc) has A&M hit the 8 ypc mark.
None of this means it will translate against Clemson, who is well known for having possibly the best defensive line in college football. But hey, let’s just enjoy a good performance. It’s ok to acknowledge and enjoy the good things the team does, even when they are done against a horribly overmatched opponent.
Most of the runs were power runs between the tackles, north/south runs that allowed the running back to hit the hole at full speed. We didn’t see much variety at all, which was no doubt by design. Against Clemson I’d expect to see a lot more misdirection, a lot more formations, and of course a lot less success. But since we can only look at one game against one bad opponent, you can’t ask for a better debut than what was shown Thursday.
The passing game is in good hands
Kellen Mond earned the start and while he wasn’t quite Jameis Winston, he was, to my eyes, so vastly improved over last year it’s almost hard to believe. What’s that they say about Jimbo Fisher being a quarterback whisperer?
I was one who stated several times that I was skeptical of Mond overtaking Starkel. The gap between the two was just too great when we saw them on the field last year. Practice reports kept coming out and indicating that Mond was indeed performing at a high level, but still I was skeptical. Mond led his team to a win in the spring game, and still I doubted.
Basing it on just the one game, it seems he has proved me (and many people) wrong. I’m not talking about the fact that A&M blew out a bad team. I’m talking about the way Mond played. The accuracy was there. Accuracy does not depend on the opponent. A pass is either accurate and on time or it’s not, and with Mond Thursday night, it generally was. His speed in diagnosing where to throw the ball was far better.
Keep in mind, the last time we saw Mond start against an FCS opponent, he was benched because the Aggies were in danger of losing to Nicholls State. Jake Hubenak came in and led the Aggies to 10 late points that day to avoid disaster as A&M held on to win 24-14.
Flash forward to 2018, and Mond looked completely in command. No, he wasn’t perfect. But he was very good. I’m not even saying he has the job locked up or will continue to look that good. But to ignore the clear progress he has made would be a mistake.
Also keep in mind the fact that possibly his best two throws of the night did not show up on the box score. One was a deep post to Quartney Davis that resulted in a pass interference call, and the other was a deep throw, on the run, that hit Cam Buckley in the hands for a touchdown but it was dropped. Even without those, Mond completed 68% of his passes and, according to Jimbo Fisher, also did a good job on the unseen (to fans) aspect of checking to the proper runs and protections.
Nick Starkel looked good in relief but the game was already over at that point so it’s hard to glean too much from it other than the fact that it confirms that yes, Starkel is an accurate quarterback who looks comfortable in the pocket. We already knew that, considering Starkel threw for 499 yards in his last collegiate start.
Obviously the Clemson game will tell us far more. I’m not projecting one game on to an SEC schedule. But Mond, in one night, took me from being a full-on doubter to someone who thinks Mond could legitimately be a quality starter this year. A&M is set at quarterback, in my opinion, even if the quarterback battle isn’t 100% settled just yet.
The team came out focused and ready to play
This type of thing makes me roll my eyes sometimes, because poor play doesn’t always mean lack of focus nor does good play always mean they were focused, but piecing together everything I can, I feel comfortable saying that A&M was legitimately ready to play and completely bought in to the Jimbo Fisher culture.
Did Penn State’s struggles with Appalachian State (they hung on for an overtime victory) mean they weren’t focused or ready? Perhaps. Big time teams usually blow out these types of opponents, and occasionally they don’t, and there are myriad possible reasons.
With Clemson looming, and playing in a brand new system for the first time, I felt like it would have been possible to see some struggles from the Aggies. But to me, they looked completely focused and completely trusting of the system they are learning and just went out and did what they were asked to do on each play, and it added up to a dominating win.
Now the real test begins. Here are my burning questions.
Will the Aggies have the defensive depth to keep Clemson in check?
I’m high on the Aggie defense this year, with depth at linebacker being the only caveat to that. If everyone is healthy, I believe the Wrecking Crew can keep Clemson from running away with the game. Anthony Hines is back to practice after missing the opener and hopes to be available Saturday.
A&M caught a break, if you want to call it that, by having both targeting penalties (starting linebacker Otaro Alaka and starting safety Donovan Wilson both were ejected for targeting Thursday night) occur in the first half which prevented both players from being suspended for the first half of the Clemson game. The Aggies also appeared to escape game one with no injuries.
As long as there aren’t a couple injuries or targeting ejections at key spots Saturday, I think the Ags can play effective defense for four quarters.
Will the Aggie offense be able to avoid negative plays?
Clemson, with their all-NFL defensive line, will make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. But how many?
There’s no doubt that this part of the game is a mismatch on paper. For A&M to have a good chance of competing, I believe limiting negative plays will be important. When the Aggies run the ball, it’s going to depend on all five linemen doing their job and then when they get beat, let’s hope a certain running back can do something on his own.
In the passing game, Jimbo Fisher will have to find the balance between keeping Jace Sternberger in to block and having him be a receiving threat. He’s too valuable as a receiver to spend too much time protecting the quarterback, so that will leave Trayveon Williams to provide extra protection.
To my eyes, he had a good game Thursday as a blocker. But A&M did miss protection on a few blitzes, leaving Kellen Mond completely exposed for sacks and hits. If Mond is under heavy pressure all evening, it will be a long night for the Aggie offense.
Can Jimbo win the coaching matchup?
This one is a bit subjective, but I do think A&M is in a slightly favorable position here. It’s well-documented that both coaches are very familiar with each other, having been in the same conference for the last eight years. They both know what the other will try to do.
That said, Fisher and the Aggies at least have a little element of surprise working in their favor, as they brought in Darrell Dickey to coordinate the offense. Yes, it’s still Jimbo’s offense, but Dickey could be adding in any number of subtle wrinkles that Clemson won’t necessarily be prepared for.
These are two of college football’s elite coaches, so the reasonable expectation is that both teams look prepared and well-coached and neither coach gets caught off guard by anything. But if ever a team was in a good spot to pull off an upset, I’d say it’s A&M.
With how conservative the Aggies were offensively in game one (no screens, no draws, no misdirection, very little in the way of play action or bootlegs, etc.), and how different Mond looks (whether it’s just his own development or a more comfortable system for him or both), A&M has to feel like they hold all the cards right now. Having bought in to the new Jimbo culture, it feels to me like this team believes they can win and are ready to make a statement.
Whether or not they can do that remains to be seen. They’re underdogs for a reason, and they should be. But if they play well, A&M can compete in this game.