After re-watching the Mississippi State game, I have some good news. Don't panic. Most of the issues the Texas A&M offense faced on Saturday that caused it to shut down are correctable. Most of them. You may not like the answer on how to correct the final problem. Let's try to break them down for you so you can understand what really happened to the vaunted Aggie offense in Starkville.
Mississippi State's Defensive Scheme
Mississippi State played the entire game in the same defensive look --
They aligned in a 4-2-5 defense, with four defensive lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. Their safeties aligned in a "cover 2 shell", with each of them off the ball and responsible for covering one deep half of the field. The two outside corners along with the nickel corner played the three most outside receivers for most of the game, with the boundary corner (the corner to the short side of the field) giving a press-man look and the field corner playing off. A linebacker was always shaded over to the 4th, inside-most receiver.
Here are some images of the Mississippi State alignment.
Mississippi State played this same defense from the first series of the game to the last. They really didn't make too many adjustments out of it all game long. They blitzed sparingly, choosing to only go with a 5th extra blitzer instead of sending multiple blitzers. We'll discuss why it was so effective in a second, but I wanted to mention a couple of things you may not have noticed on Saturday that was just as bad as the receivers dropping catchable footballs.
Poor Wide Receiver Blocking
Yes, as good as our wide receivers have been in the past at blocking down the field in both our screen game and for our running backs, they were pretty awful on Saturday and really made some bonehead mistakes. This is as bad as I have seen them blocking on the outside. This is another 'lack of focus' miscue you can chalk up right along with dropping 13-15 passes.
On this particular play early in the game, a screen is called to Ricky Seals-Jones. However, Ed Pope who is lined up to the outside, thinks it is a pass play and goes into a route instead of blocking for Jones. The outside corner he should have been blocking makes the tackle on Seals-Jones, bringing him down for a loss.
Note: this is a good spot to commend Mississippi State for their tackling on Saturday. There were very few missed tackles during the course of the game, keeping our receivers from picking up their usual yards after catch. This was another factor that limited our offense, but that was just great play by our opponent.
Again on another screen in the 2nd quarter, two blockers will miss the corner completely, allowing him to make the tackle on the play. This is just inexcusable and really out of character or our guys.
High Snaps By Mike Matthews
To go along with the dropped passes and poor blocking by the receivers, the other self-inflicted wound was high snaps from the center Mike Matthews. There was a stretch in the 2nd quarter that for whatever reason, Mike was constantly snapping the ball high. This caused the timing of the play to become all out-of-whack, leading to Kenny Hill being dropped for a loss, leaving a lot of yards to pick up on 2nd and 3rd down.
And now, to the chess match......
Mississippi State Drops Linebackers Deep Against Pass
Sounds kind of simple, right? One thing that Mississippi State did that really flustered our offense was drop their linebackers deep over the middle of the field against the pass. We are talking 10-15 yards down the field from the line of scrimmage.
Remember Malcome Kennedy's game winning touchdown reception against Arkansas? After a little fake handoff in the backfield to pull the linebackers up, Kennedy got behind those linebackers in the middle of the field to catch the game winning pass and then split the safeties after the catch to score the touchdown. Mississippi State wasn't going to allow anyone to get behind their linebackers on Saturday. They were dropping their linebackers like the Chicago Bears used to drop Brian Urlacher in the 'Tampa 2' defense. They dared Texas A&M to do two things:
- Run the football
- Throw short crosses over the middle
So how do you counter linebackers playing this deep? Well, you either run the football, utilize the short crossing routes by receivers, or utilize the check-down to the running back. The good news is that the Texas A&M coaching staff DID makes these adjustments, toward the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter. They started running some delayed-draws with Brandon Williams, they also went to some draws for Kenny Hill (that was the play trying to be run in the YouTube video above showing the poor snap by Mike Matthews), and also started running Boone Niederhofer on those crossing routes short over the middle.
Here is the run-favorable look that Mississippi State was giving Texas A&M the entire game. With the second linebacker shaded over to cover the inside receiver to the bottom of the image, it left five defenders in the box against five Texas A&M offensive lineman. Mississippi Stated WANTED Texas A&M to run the ball with this formation. We SHOULD have run the ball a lot more with this look given to us. Too often, we chose to pass off of this look. Texas A&M should have ran the ball until Mississippi State either brought their second linebacker in, or a safety down, to then open up the passing game once again.
Here is the result of actually running the football on one of those delayed-draws by Brandon Williams. Just look how much open field is in front of Williams with Mike Matthews leading the way. This play would go for a solid 8-9 yards. Texas A&M should have continued to use these draw-type plays until Mississippi State changed their alignment. They were successful, but not utilized enough. Instead, the Aggies chose to give Kenny Hill the ball on a draw to get the same effect, but giving it to Brandon Williams or Trey Williams in space would have been more effective, in my opinion.
Here is a quick look at an open check-down that Kenny Hill could have utilized. These check-downs were open all game long. Instead, Kenny will tuck the ball and try to scramble here. He'll pick up a few yards, but getting the ball to Trey Williams with space to work would have saved Kenny from taking an unnecessary hit.
At the end of the day, the Texas A&M coaches did try to make adjustments to what the Mississippi State defense was giving them. Unfortunately, they didn't call the run enough during this period, instead electing to put the game on Kenny Hill's arm and legs with designed draws and short passes. Unfortunately, we got in our own way with poor snaps by Mike Matthews that didn't allow these plays to be successful. We also choose to go short over the middle, which was the right read, but inaccurate and dropped passes didn't allow us capitalize there, either. I think we are justified in saying we should have run the ball more, but the coaches made the necessary adjustments and our players did a terrible job in execution. These issues are correctable, and on a good day we make the plays we need to make, resulting in Mississippi State making their own in-game adjustments, and who knows how the game progresses from there. With our mistakes, Mississippi State continued to call their same defense throughout the game.
And now for the one problem we won't be able to correct any time soon....
Kenny Hill's Inaccuracy is Hurting the Aggie Offense
This is by far the biggest problem the Texas A&M offense faces in the future. Mississippi State figured out that by crowding the middle of the field and taking away Kenny's easy throws, they would cause him to make throws toward the sidelines and deep, 20+ yards down the field. That, or Kenny would simply throw short passes and they trusted their tackling enough to make the stop for a short gain. These passes towards the sideline and down the field are HARD passes to make. You have to have both an NFL arm and NFL accuracy to complete them. Right now, Kenny Hill doesn't have the consistent accuracy to make these passes and I don't believe he will be finding it anytime soon.
Mississippi State has also provided a blueprint for the rest of the SEC on how to frustrate the Texas A&M offense -- cover the intermediate to deep middle of the field and make the passing game beat you over the top or towards the sideline.
So what is causing Kenny Hill's inaccuracy? It all comes back to his base (footwork) and throwing motion. Here are a few examples taken from Saturday.
On this close-up image, just look at the lean Kenny has. He isn't standing straight up, allowing to get a solid base underneath him. He is pretty much standing on the tip of his toes. The second thing is his throwing motion: a lot of the time he is throwing sidearm, with the motion away from his body instead of close. This could be due to a couple of things. It's potentially a carry-over from his baseball career, or it could also be Kenny having to create his own windows to throw the football around our offensive lineman and defenders. I believe it probably is a combination of both at times. However, these problems are consistent throughout the course of the game (even the header image for this article serves as an example).
Just look at how BOTH feet are leaving the ground in order to make this throw. This was the 3rd down pass right before the half (a fade route to Josh Reynolds that wasn't even in bounds).
Kenny will not be correcting these issues any time soon. These are things that have to be corrected in an offseason, during spring football, or with another quarterback coach like George Whitfield Jr.
While a lot of the dropped passes on Saturday were on the receivers, quite a few were also due to Kenny's inaccuracy. He wasn't putting the football in an easily-catchable position. The receivers were having to make adjustments to catch the football. It is really hard to make these adjustments when you have a good defense like Mississippi State covering you, too.
Look at the placement of the football. Catchable, but making it very hard for the receiver.
Right now, Kenny's inaccuracy is the limiting factor for this offense. That is what really will hold it back. The best thing we can do is try and manage it. Make things easier for Kenny when the defense allows. You also have to hope Kenny comes in and has a great day, versus a sporadic day like he had on Saturday. We won't know what kind of day he will have until we get a quarter into the game.
One final thing -- this issue for Kenny is going to open up the quarterback race once again next season if he doesn't correct it. Kenny won the job this year because he understands the offense and knows where to go with the football. He's great at that. But we also have to open this offense up and drive the ball down the field, just like Sumlin did at the University of Houston with Case Keenum. This would open up everything underneath and over the middle we like to run. We can't do that right now. That may be the reason we see either Kyle Allen or even Kyler Murray as the starting QB in 2015 over Hill.
Looking Ahead to Ole Miss
Ole Miss is going to run the same 4-2-5 defense Mississippi State did this coming Saturday. While they play with 4 down lineman, one of their starting defense ends, Marquis Haynes, is only 220 pounds. That makes him really just a third linebacker who plays with his hand in the dirt. If I'm coach Spavital, I'm committing to the running game on Saturday. I would run 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) for 75-85% of the game, with Cam Clear being the main focus of the offense. Yes, we've talked so much about this before without seeing Clear on the field, but this is the perfect game for Clear as a 6th blocker in both the run game and passing game. You try and match Ole Miss' front six with five offensive lineman and Cam Clear, leaving each blocker one-on-one with each front six defender. Not only does this help in the running game, but I'd also leave Clear in to block on passing downs, allowing the middle of the offensive line to double team All-American defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
If Ole Miss plays a "Cover 2" shell just like Mississippi State did, then you MUST run the football. The numbers would be on Texas A&M's side with Cam Clear in the game.
Once Ole Miss tries to bring a safety down into the box to help stuff the run, that is when we can execute our passing game.
This strategy may not be "conventional" for the Texas A&M offense and what we are used to doing, but this gives us the best chance to win against an Ole Miss defense that has only given up 1 touchdown all season long with their starters. Yes, one TD given up to an opposing offense with their starters in the game. We MUST commit to the running game on Saturday, or it may get ugly once again for the Texas A&M offense.