18-14. Had I told my fellow Ags last week that this would have been the score in the Arkansas State game, many would have found themselves with one foot off the bandwagon. And that would have been with a victory. But instead, we Ags find ourselves running out of time in a game against a 5-7 Sun Belt team. With a brand new offensive line. And only one returning started in the defensive backfield. Oh, and did I mention they are a freaking run of the mill average Sun Belt Conference team!?! Where did we go wrong?
Arkansas State is not a good program. I mean sure, they've got an NFL worthy running back this year and they took Texas to the wire last year, but let's not kid ourselves. This is a team that went 5-7 last year with a senior laden roster in the Sun Belt conference. They lost to Middle Tennessee State, the great state of Tennessee's equivalent of the University of North Texas. Hell, Arkansas State IS UNT. So how does a program that boasts multi-million dollar facilities, a great fanbase, and a seat right plum in the middle of one of the biggest recruiting hotbeds in the nation lose at home to a team like this? The easiest way to put this is to break it down by unit.
OFFENSE: Texas A&M came out in the first half running the offense many of us expected. Lots of pro formations (fullbacks!) and lots of running. And through the first half, it looked like it was going to work. Mike Goodson showed all of us why many think his junior year at A&M is his last as he continued to show his electric ability to not only make people miss, but pull away from them when he got the space to do so. A&M came out utilizing pitches and sweeps to the outside for Goodson, and the offensive line showed the ability to pull to the out side and make some holes. The first possession consisted almost entirely of outside runs, and A&M promptly responded to Arkansas State's opening field goal with a touchdown. Going into halftime, A&M's biggest concern lie with the meek passing yards gathered in the first half. But with the success of the running game and the relatively solid blocking thus far, who was worried? In fact, with A&M receiving the second half opening kickoff, I almost expected Coach Sherman to go for the throat on the possession and begin employing some play action to look for the deep ball. Sure enough first offensive play of the second half, Stephen McGee dropped back and faked the hand off to Goodson. Just as I thought.
And that is when it all went wrong. McGee has had a supposed problem since he stepped foot on campus with making reads and progressions on passing plays, but with Fran's option based offense, it was easy to find an excuse. Saturday night, on this very play, McGee showed that there is at least some merit to this critique. Having found his primary receiver covered, and pressure coming, McGee began scrambling backward trying to escape the pressure. The result? A sack and a 17 yard loss. This play was the catalyst in the collapse of the A&M offense. Arkansas State keyed in on the fact that A&M's offense was focusing on an outside running game, and sold out to stop it. When A&M could not get their offense going in any other way, it stalled. The receivers could not gain seperation from their defenders. When they did, McGee missed them on his check downs. And when he didn't just overlook receivers, he was getting chased out of the pocket by defenders who met very little resistance from the offensive line. The offense didn't just sputter, the engine blew up. Meanwhile Arkansas State kept plodding along on offense, which brings us to the performance of the A&M defense.
DEFENSE: Let me say this about the defense's performance. When they brought the blitz on passing downs, they showed us a glimpse of what we all hoped to see out of Joe Kines' defense. Guys flashed off the edges, cornerbacks and safeties flew recklessly for the quarterback. We even got to see a quarterback get blown up and fumble, which I can tell you I haven't seen an A&M defense do since the Clemson game in 2004. Now, to the long list of negatives. The zone read absolutely killed A&M Saturday night. For those who dont know, the zone read, or smoke draw (which we saw gobs of at A&M recently) is when the quarterback, usually in Shotgun formation with a running back beside him, "reads" the block progression. Based on what he sees as far as holes opening up, he will either hand off to the running back, or fake the handoff and run it himself. With the way the middle of the A&M defense was opening up, ASU QB Casey Leonard had a galore of options. The Aggie defense was giving up 5-7 yards just about every first down on the zone read. The line failed to plug the holes, and the linebacking corps failed further by frequently failing to recognize the runner and making contact near the line of scrimmage. Instead, A&M's LBs were often dragging the runner down from behind, only after they had gained considerable yardage. This, coupled with Aggie cornerbacks STILL standing 5-10 yards off the receivers, made for the impression that A&M will continue to try the bend but dont break defense of the previous couple years.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
This loss was a sobering reminder of just how tough the next couple years can and will be. Harkening back to 2002 when R.C. Slocum was fired, the hiring of Dennis Franchione did far more harm to the Aggie football program than many of us take account for. Even though Slocum's teams had been in steady decline since 1998, he was able to use his defensive prowess to help keep the Wrecking Crew respectable. By hiring an unorthodox offensive coach like Franchione in 2002, A&M shifted away from defenisve focus and began recruiting players geared toward Fran's offense. Today as it stands, we have a set of Offensive lineman built to pull and sweep run block for an option based offense, WRs built to block and gain short yardage more than stretch the field, and a Quarterback who for the last four years has been taught to look to run instead of being groomed and instructed on the intricacies of the QB position. On defense, we've got an entire two deep of players who have been groomed to read and react to what the offense does, not just fly to the ball. In defensive football, what sets you apart is the ability to move quickly and fiercely to the ball without leaving gaping holes for the offense to exploit on fakes and whatnot. The past coaching staff's emphasis on reading formations and plays, and THEN reacting has left a very timid group of players. Aggie DB's lack the confidence to fly in on a wide receive screen, because they havent been taught enough tackling funamentals to believe they can make that open field tackle. Aggie linebackers don't throw themselves into the middle of the offensive line on a running play because they lack the coverage fundamentals to react in case the play turns into play action. As much as these issues are fundamental, they are just as much challenges in changing the attitude and thought process of 105 different football players.
If A&M hopes to contend again for titles, we are going to have to believe that Mike Sherman has the ability to change the mindset of Aggie football. We as fans have to believe that he can change the demeanor in these players. The football players are going to have to buy into the ideology the staff is pushing on them. They are going to have to trust that when they are told to be in a certain spot, that the staff has set them up for success, no matter how little it makes sense at the time. Installing a new offensive and defensive system is not easy, and at this early point in the season, it doesn't look like many pieces seem to be fitting very well. It will be interesting to see how much the team buys into what the staff is selling, and how much confidence can be gained from this. This season cannot be graded on wins and losses alone. Those who do this will find themselves sorely dissappointed. That said, had we stayed with Fran we could've expected an 8 or 9 win season this year, only to be followed by another sub .500 season when we have to travel to Norman and Lubbock. I believe that Coach Sherman's staff has the ability to instill a sense of belief in Aggie football that we do belong with the OU's and t.u.'s of the world. But it will take time. Each game, we will hopefully see the right block here, the right defensive adjustment there, and with this will come more confidence and a belief in the system and program that we strive for.
THIS WEEK: This week, A&M travels to Albuquerque to face the New Mexico Lobos. The Lobos were surprisingly drilled at home on Saturday 26-3 by a TCU team few were expecting to win. A&M needs to go into New Mexico and bring home a win, and they will be facing a team looking to make a statement. Both teams suffered huge embarrassments in their first game, and the loser of this game will likely be facing big questions on the future of their season. That said, A&M has the talent to go into Albuquerque and leave with a victory. The challenge will lie in whether or not this team can go into a hostile environment and still limit the mistakes that plagued them so much against Arkansas State. The game is slated to start at 3:30 pm, and will be televised on the Versus Network.
DID YOU KNOW?
To go along with A&M's early growing season pains, I wanted to try and bring forth a little hope for the Aggie nation. We are not the first team to be in such a situation. Do you remember that just recently
- Michigan lost to Appalachian State. At home?
- That Alabama, under first year coach Nick Saban, lost to a Louisiana-Monroe team that A&M had just beaten by 40 two weeks prior?
- Just this week, Eastern Carolina walked into Lane Stadium, one of the most intimidating stadiums in the country, and beat Virginia Tech?
In addition, have you ever heard of a couple guys by the names of Paul "Bear" Bryant and Jackie Sherill? Easily two of the top 3 coaches in Aggie history did not see immediate success.
- Bear Bryant's first game was against none other than the tortilla flingers of the west, Texas Tech. Tech walked into Kyle Field and promptly handed Bear Bryan a 41-9 loss in his debut. Bryant went on to go 1-9 that year, only to follow it up with a 7-2 record the next year, followed by an undefeated season in 1956 and a 1957 season in which A&M was a favorite for the national championship up until the closing weeks, when Bryant announced he would be leaving for Alabama.
- Jackie Sherrill, whom Texas A&M made the highest paid coach in college football in 1982, awarded Texas A&M with a 38-16 loss in his debut against Boston College in Kyle Field. He went on to go 5-6 that year, capped by losses to SMU, Arkansas, and Texas in which they were outscored 114-25. Three years later, A&M went 10-2, winning the Soutwest Conference by beating three fellow SWC top 25 teams (including a 42-10 thrashing of then no. 18 texas). They went on to the Cotton Bowl that year, and defeated the Bo Jackson led Auburn Tigers in a game highlighted by A&M's goal line stand of Bo on four consecutive plays. Bo knew the wrecking crew.
So keep the hope Ags. We might have some toes hangin over the edge, but don't jump off the cliff quite yet!