Last week coming into this game, we talked about the importance of line play against Arizona State. We know one of those groups showed up, as the Aggie defensive line balled for the entire contest, driving Arizona State into submission. The Aggie offensive line? Very sketchy. We're going to spend a lot of time today talking about that group.
But before we get there, let's highlight how well the defense played. It's no secret that new Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis has made quite an impact for this Aggie squad. You can watch this squad and immediately see the coaching turnaround from the little things this group is doing that they weren't in 2014. Take this play from LB Shaan Washington as an example --
Washington reads this play immediately and he gets down to the line of scrimmage to prevent Arizona State from setting the edge. This forces the Sun Devil ball carrier back inside where the rest of the defenders are waiting. It doesn't seem like much, especially since this play ended up gaining decent yardage, but these are the type of things the Aggies weren't doing in 2014. This was the same type of play that Missouri's Russell Hansbrough took to the sideline and scampered for a touchdown last year. These are the defensive fundamentals that a good unit has to have. This, along with finally being able to tackle in space, could vault the 2015 Aggie defense into one of the top units in the country.
Now, to the offense.......
Arizona State Blitzkrieg
Going back and re-watching the game, I was a little shocked how all-out Arizona State went on the defensive side of the ball. They decided coming in they were going to bring at least 5 defenders on every single play, if not 6 or 7. This was something they most likely picked up on from watching film of how John Chavis himself used to attack us at LSU. Here is an example of their extreme rush. These three plays are all from one series, back to back to back.
To accomplish the blitzkrieg, they would usually bring one of their middle linebackers. Additionally, they also decided to crash their outside linebackers on every single play, and this ended up giving us the most trouble on the night. But to protect the backside of their defense due to this crashing outside linebacker, they would also take their nickel corner out of coverage and bring him close to the line of scrimmage, just in case we got cute with running some kind of reverse. Taking their nickel out of coverage gave them a lot of flexibility in using their linebackers in both run and pass blitzes. Let's go to the 4th and 1 Arizona State stop as an example.
You can see on this play #28 of ASU leaving the slot receiver and coming towards the line. This allows #58 Salamo Fiso to fully commit to stopping the run, and ends up making the play in the backfield. If we watch this play, there was nothing that the offensive line could do to really prevent this. In fact, without Fiso crashing in, we pick up this first down. The right side of the line in Germain Ifedi and Joseph Cheek are doing their job and driving their man off the line. Center Mike Matthews has his man turned. This should have been enough for Tra Carson to pick up the first down, but we didn't have anyone to account for Fiso all night long. We simply just got out-schemed on this play.
How could we have prevented the blitzkrieg? For one, we desperately needed an extra blocker for this game. Having a viable tight end would have made a lot of difference. We did at times bring #47 Caden Smith into the game as an extra blocker in the backfield, and he usually did try to block backside and prevent the defender from crashing down. Why we didn't use more of Caden on Saturday night is unclear. But it is very clear -- we need to find a reliable TE on this roster. Maybe that is Caden Smith, or maybe it is someone else, much like we went to Ben Compton at the end of last season. One guy who could possibly fit that role is Koda Martin. Whoever it is, we need to get them developed and ready to play because Arizona State's blueprint to beat us is now on tape for the rest of our opponents to see and utilize. We will see this again later in the season.
We also at times wanted to use our second running back as a blocker. In the first quarter we brought in both Tra Carson and James White at the same time, and that combination was working well. Here is an example of Carson blocking the backside defender for White's run.
Unfortunately, White would leave the game with an injury not long after this play. We potentially could have seen that look a majority of the night had White been healthy and it might have eased some of our offense's woes.
Another thing we could have done more was making Arizona State pay for taking their nickel corner off the slot receiver and leaving their safety matched up in coverage. We did do a little of this as an in-game adjustment, as shown here.
You can see in that video the Sun Devil nickel corner leaving Christian Kirk to come towards the line, and we make the throw to Kirk. The issue here was that the action in the backfield was too slow; we needed to get Kirk the ball quicker on that screen. That should have been an automatic check anytime the QB saw the nickel corner coming towards the line. Eventually, Christian Kirk would score the game sealing touchdown with the same adjustment.
Grading the Offensive Line
So now that we understand what Arizona State was doing, let's get back to the offensive line. How well did they play? This question should be broken up into individual players and their positions. True freshman Keaton Sutherland started the game at left guard for Texas A&M, but he was promptly pulled from the game after the first drive, and Jeremiah Stuckey played for the rest of the game. Stuckey also didn't play that well of a game. He did get beat with pressure a couple of times in pass protection, but the biggest issue was his inability to drive his man off the ball. There was very little movement off the line of scrimmage from him. Avery Gennesy started at left tackle, and he ended up playing a mixed game. We saw flashes at times of Gennesy being a good player, but there were also times where he did not finish the play. Too many times we saw him disengage from his man early and stand around and look at the play while it was still going on. We have to have offensive linemen that are finishers. Gennesy should be a good player in time. This was his first game action in two years. The rest of the line played fairly well. Mike Matthews is never going to be a guy who drives his man off the line, but he does play with good technique and was able to turn his man on most run plays. Joseph Cheek and Germain Ifedi played very well on the right side. Each had their moments where their man got the best of them, but overall they did their jobs. Left guard is where we are gong to see most of our issues this fall and is currently the weakest link.
One thing we didn't see too much of on Saturday night was pulling linemen. Several times when fans got an opportunity to watch AggieFBLife's Periscope of practice, we saw a lot of pulling linemen in power and counter plays. We didn't see any of those plays in the first half, but we did see some of it in the 2nd half, like this run play. These run plays were actually some of our best gains on the ground for the night.
Expect to see more of these looks as the season progresses.
Overall, was the play calling bad?
I honestly wouldn't say it was bad. I know it is easy to hate on Jake Spavital. If anything, I would say we got out-schemed from a formation standpoint. We should have committed to having an extra blocker in the backfield for the entire game, whether it had been Caden Smith or someone else.
One thing you have to consider is the constant switching of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray in and out of the game. Had we stuck with Allen for the full game, then going with that extra blocker is a must. But with Murray in the game, you kind of want to spread the defense out and give Murray room to scramble. You don't necessarily want to bring the defense in closer. So, it was a delicate balance of formation selection based on situation and what QB was in the game at the current time.
We can already see the Aggie faithful are splitting into two fractions, the Kyle Allen club and the Kyler Murray truthers. So should we name either the starter the rest of the season? I'm actually okay if we decide to rotate in QBs, depending on game flow. It's unconventional and something I wouldn't necessarily agree with, but when Kyler Murray was in the game, it changed the Arizona State defense. All of a sudden they couldn't send their blitzkrieg and had to leave defenders back to "spy" on Murray for when he ran. That helped take some of the edge off their blitz packages in the final quarters when Kyle Allen re-entered the game. It's never a bad thing to have Kyler Murray waiting in your back pocket and causing defensive coordinators to worry about both QBs and game plan for both QBs heading into the game.
When I woke up Sunday morning, I was really concerned that the A&M offense was going to be our anchor holding down the 2015 team, and not the defense. But after going through and re-watching the Arizona State game and understanding what the Sun Devils were doing that really flustered us, I'm a little more confident that this was a one-game anomaly than a predictor on what is to come the rest of the way. But like I mentioned, Arizona State's attack is now on film and will serve as a blueprint for the other eleven teams we face this season. We'll see that type of attack again, most likely from Arkansas and definitely Ole Miss. We will have to be prepared going forward. Improvement from the left side of the line, a healthy James White, and finding a tight end on the roster will go a long way to improving the 2015 Aggie offense.