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Lingering Questions Remain After 2nd Straight Loss for Texas A&M

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After a second straight blowout loss at the hands of an SEC West foe, this time at Kyle Field, many lingering questions remain as the team tries to prepare for a 2012 encore trip to Tuscaloosa.

Scott Halleran

Unfortunately I didn't have time this week to dive into film review for Ole Miss (plus I really didn't want to have to re-watch the game), but I did want to take some time and go over some things that have been really bothering me after Saturday night to get the discussion out there.

How bad do we want it?

This is the biggest question I have after Saturday night. Let me try to reset the stage for you. A prime-time Saturday night game, with ABC/ESPN's A team announcers in the house, facing off against the #3 team in the country, with the largest crowd ever in the state of Texas to watch a football game behind you. That type of setup is WHY you play the game of football. It's the kind of night you would never forget as a player. All the work you put into the offseason, spring practice, weight room sessions in the summer and fall camp....Saturday night is why you put all of the work in, just to live in that moment. Yet, with everything in favor of Texas A&M, they fell behind Ole Miss quickly 14-0, with little effort from Ole Miss.

I just didn't see many players on the field Saturday night that wanted the win bad enough. They certainly weren't playing with any type of reckless abandon, putting it all on the line to make their impact on the game. I saw a bunch of guys lining up like they were playing Lamar or Rice. That really made me shake my head. The upperclassmen should have been rallying everyone leading up to the game, knowing they weren't going to see many more of these opportunities to leave their legacy for some years to come. And the young guys should have had a little something extra coming into the game as this was their first shot to play under the real lights of a entire nation watching. I didn't see any of that aside from Speedy Noil and Myles Garrett, but we already knew those young stars would bring it. But from everyone else? I can stand losing, but I can't stand losing with minimal effort put forth, especially on a record setting night like Saturday.

Defense being unprepared....again

This defense, especially the coordinator, continues to take a pounding week-in and week-out, both from the team their facing and the fans afterwards. Look, we won't necessarily discuss here if they deserve to be put under the microscope like they currently are, but there is a few things that really annoy me with the group.

The first is just the failure to line up near the goal line. Did you notice during Ole Miss' first TD run that the defense wasn't lined up at the snap of the ball? This isn't the first time this has happened this season. It happened against Arkansas, and two weeks ago at Mississippi State. From a football standpoint, this defense likes to play a strong side and weak side. They will identify the offenses "strong side", usually the side where the tight end lines up, and switch our strong side defensive end and linebacker to that side of the field to match strength-on-strength. That sounds good, but to execute that alignment, our plays must first recognize what side the offenses' strength is, and then line up in a timely fashion before the snap of the ball. And we don't do that. Our defense is still moving around by the time the offense snaps the ball, giving them an easy play and likely touchdown. This is something that other teams pick up on from watching film. They see that we struggle with this simple thing, and then use it against us. It's easy for the opposing QB to tell the team in the huddle to run to the line of scrimmage and quick-snap the play. Even though it happened two weeks in a row, we still haven't fixed this simple issue. That's a sign of a coaching staff being stubborn by saying "we are going to do this my way", ignoring the fact that you've been beaten by it two weeks in a row.

Here is another sign of unpreparedness -- we didn't know how to defend the read-option with Bo Wallace. Just take a look at what our defense did on Bo Wallace's second TD run.

A sound defense would have assigned one player, either Garrett or Bass, to take the dive. Usually it would be Justin Bass. The other defender should have taken Bo Wallace on the option.  Yet here you have two guys playing the same read, with nobody to account for the Wallace keep.  Wallace, of course, scores. These responsibilities should have been drilled over and over again heading into the game, since the read-option is a big part of the Ole Miss run game. Yet, on the second drive of the game, you had a defense that was once again confused on what to do. Do we blame the youth of Garrett here or the former walk-on player? You could, but the coaching staff has to take a lot of responsibility for the players not knowing their assignments.

Kenny Hill and receivers not on same page

Last week we talked about how Kenny's throwing motion was leading to inaccurate passes. This week, I saw something different that is extremely concerning for the future of our passing game. First, we need to discuss what an option route is.

Image Link

An option route is just what it sounds like -- for any given route a receiver may run, he has the option to change the route based on the coverage that is being played by the defense. For example, The route may break in against man coverage, but break out towards the sideline against the zone. You will also hear while watching a game at home that a receiver may have failed to "sit down" against a certain coverage, and instead continued running, causing the pass to be incomplete. These type of routes are great for the offense, since they are designed to beat any given coverage a defense may call. However, they require both the receiver running the route to read the coverage and adjust, as well as the quarterback to also be able to read the same coverage and trust the receiver to adjust his route so he can safely throw the football to him. Both players must see the same thing and be on the same page for these routes to be effective, without any type of communication from the snap of the ball to the end of the play. It requires a lot of repetition between the quarterback and receiver and some level of trust between the two as well. The above image illustrates these option routes as each arrow branching out is a different route the receiver can run on the given play. In the image above, both the Y and H receivers have 3 different routes they could potentially run. Now throw in the X and Z receiver each with two, and on this particular play the four receivers could run 10 different routes. See how complicated it is? But it is also why an offense can brag about only having 5-10 plays. These option routes give a passing game variety while keeping the number of plays minimal. Here is another good read on option routes by Doug Farrar.

Now back to the Texas A&M passing game. As you might imagine, Texas A&M runs these type of option routes quite often. I saw several instances on Saturday night where we failed to execute them. I can recall two plays in a row near the redzone in the 2nd quarter that Kenny Hill and Sabian Holmes didn't connect because Holmes ran one route when Hill threw the ball expecting him to run the other. I also saw it later in the game with Josh Reynolds. It is one thing for one of our receivers not to know his responsibility, but when I see it with two or more receivers, then I wonder where the disconnect is in the passing game. Is it on our receiving group as a whole, or on the quarterback? The most likely answer is a combination of the two. But here we are in game 7 of the season, heading into game 8, having these miscommunication issues in the passing game. Some people have shrugged off our struggles on offense, excusing them as inexperience. That answer might fly if we weren't in year 3 of this offense at Texas A&M or in game 7 of this particular season. These are mistakes that shouldn't be happening at this point in the season. Our quarterback should be able to read the given coverage, and our receivers should be expected to know their specific route responsibility. These disconnects are happening far too often and it makes me uncomfortable about where this offense currently is and how close they might be to returning to the form we saw in South Carolina.

And one more thing on the passing game -- we have to go vertical. HAVE to. Does this offense miss Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans? You bet, but the one thing it misses the most is the verticality the Evans-Manziel combination brought to it, especially in the deep, outside thirds of the field. I can remember us trying attack these areas early against South Carolina with Ricky Seals-Jones, a couple of tries against Rice, and then late against Mississippi State when Speedy Noil made some ridiculous catches. I might even give you a couple of Ed Pope's catches against Arkansas. Attacking and connecting in these areas helps open up the entire field for the offense because the defense must commit to covering them. Connecting on those deep balls then helps with routes underneath and over the middle, making them easier completions. Are they difficult completions? Yes, especially against two-high safeties like we saw against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. But you have to at least attempt them. You can't just ignore that area of the field, forcing everything you do within the first 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. If you don't open things up, then defenses will continue to play you as they have the past two weeks.

The middle of the offensive line deserves heat

I want to bring this up because it is not just the quarterback and receivers that have played poorly. I have been shocked at just how bad the middle of the offensive line -- Harrison, Matthews, Gramling -- has played the last two weeks. It was really evident on Saturday night. Last week we noted Matthews' high snaps that caused the timing of the offense to become out-of-whack. This week, it was failure to pick up stunts by the Ole Miss' defensive line. The Ole Miss defensive line really liked to twist, bringing outside guys in and inside guys out, causing our offensive line to pick-up these stunting lineman after their twist. A lot of the time, we failed to do so especially in the middle, causing Kenny Hill to become pressured. I saw our linemen just stand around while an Ole Miss defender got a clean line to our quarterback. Even Cedric Ogbuehi didn't have a great game and got dominated at times. We can put a lot of blame of the offensive woes on our quarterback and receivers, but this offensive line also deserves some criticism. They need to play better, period. Cedric Ogbuehi may be losing money right now as his draft stock could be falling from poor play.

Looking ahead to Alabama

I am really interested in how Alabama's defense will line up against this Texas A&M offense. In our previous two meetings, Alabama has elected to come out in a single-high safety look, with man coverage on our receivers. That has burned them for two consecutive years. So far in our previous three games, we have faced defenses that have gone with a two-high safety look, playing both of their safeties deep. Will Nick Saban and Kirby Smart copy what our other SEC West opponents have done against us, or will they continue to stick to their defense they have played in the past?  If this Texas A&M offense does see the Cover 1 look, I will feel better about our chances in Tuscaloosa. It could be what we need for a breakout game. If we see the Cover 2 look, then we will have to put faith in coaching adjustments and better play from our offense.