Thoughts from the Arkansas Game

armani-stop-solo

THE WRECKING CREW IS BACK!!!!  If you don’t believe that statement then please take your Gig thumb and shove it up your rear or retract it and never extend it for the rest of the season.  There’s just no pleasing you.  Yes, they gave up 24 points (7 off a turnover) and almost 500 yards of offense but that Wrecking Crew played their asses off on Saturday night.  Three goal line stands, pressure on Austin Allen all night, and Armani Watts’ strip as Arkansas was about to score.  While our offense struggled for the first half, the Wrecking Crew made sure Arkansas could never get in front too far that we couldn’t get back.  I’ll get in more detail on the defense later but if you watched that game and didn’t think the defense deserves the Wrecking Crew name then I don’t know what to tell you as the Southwest Conference style of football ain’t coming back.  Speaking of Austin Allen, major props to that guy.  He was a 66% passer on the night and threw no interceptions while getting pummeled by the Wrecking Crew.  I mean just pummeled.  He just kept coming back for more and I was impressed.

As for the game itself we haven’t had a game that enjoyable since Johnny and Mike Evans.  We had a slug fest for three quarters and then right towards the end of the third quarter we had an amazing goal line stand on the 6 inch line.   On the second play of getting the ball back we hit Reynolds for a 92 yard TD pass and then we start walking away at that point.  For three quarters you’re on the edge of your seat as it goes back and forth and then your team starts walking away in the 4th quarter so you can take it all in and just enjoy it.  It was a real fight for most of the game but your team kept responding and then walked away with it comfortably when it was all said and done.  Mix in some awesome defense and big plays on offense and I don’t think it gets any more enjoyable than that in my book.  I mixed in some chocolate cake and Shiner Bocks always within reach and Fightin’ Texas Aggie Football just doesn’t get any better than it did on Saturday night in my book.

Offense:

I’m starting this offensive analysis off with someone else other than our quarterback.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again but Josh Reynolds is the most underrated receiver in the country.  He doesn’t have the flash or size of other receivers but he produces more than anyone else.  We all know about the 92 yard touchdown catch but the guy had three other clutch catches on the night and I really think it was his involvement in the passing game that got our offense going.  The most notable was Knight scrambling hard to his right and Reynolds went back for the ball and made a hard catch right on the sideline to get a first down.  He’s not just a deep threat but he works all over the field and is really the most sure handed guy we have.  Nobody nationally talks about him and even most Aggies focus on RSJ and Kirk but Josh Reynolds is a damn stud and we’re going to miss him next year.

The next guy I want to talk about is Trayveon Williams.  This time last year he was playing high school football and right now he’s gashing SEC defenses.  The way he’s doing it is impressive.  He’s doing it with a mix of moves, power, and speed.  He’s really a complete back right now and he’s a true freshman.  Keith Ford is not chopped liver and also had nice runs on Saturday night but Williams is the guy with momentum right now.  He’s been the better of the two backs in the second half the last two games so credit to Mazzone for riding the hotter hand and putting teams away.  I know a certain offensive coordinator that would stick with a regular rotation rather than riding the hot hand late in the game.  Also love that Trayveon and Trevor give the double Gigs when they score.  It’s the little things that make me smile.

As for Knight he once again played a REALLY solid game.  A lot of Aggies thought he was struggling really badly in the first half but I thought he did fine all things considered.  He didn’t look his best but if Christian Kirk catches the balls that hit in him in the hands that first half looks totally different as does Knight.  Knight was once again a slightly better than 50% passer but what I like is he’s getting better as the game wears on.  Sure, I’d like for him to start out stronger but I like the fact that he and Mazzone seem to work together to get on the same page as the game wears on.  Knight is still not a great QB from a passing standpoint but he didn’t turn the ball over and made his best passes in the second half.  If we can get him to start out stronger he could honestly be the best quarterback we’ve had in two decades not named Johnny Manziel.

Where Knight is really excelling is the running game.  This includes his actual runs but most importantly his decision making on the zone read.  I’m not a huge fan of the zone read but when you have a guy like Knight that’s reading it well and making the right decision then I’m all for it.  Knight was making great reads on it all night.  On his second touchdown right at the end of the first half he made an outstanding read.  Arkansas didn’t have a true middle linebacker and had two guys inside but off the center.  Nobody on the Arkansas defense was over the center at the second level.  At the snap the inside backers broke outside to cover leaving the middle wide open.  Knight immediately saw it, tucked the ball, found the seam at the line and off he went.  Just outstanding recognition by him and one of the big plays of the game as it brought us back to even at 17 going into half with us getting the ball in the second half.  That was a real momentum boost knowing the game was back to zero at half.  He’s got some improvement to make as a passer but I’m not gonna get on him because he made some great decisions on Saturday night and we ran away from Arkansas when it was all said and done.

High snaps.  I forgot to write about the high snaps at Auburn last week.  It was REALLY common against Auburn that I thought they would be gone against Arkansas.  Not the case.  Once again we had lots of high snaps and Knight was doing his best to come down with the ball.  I thought McCoy would have gotten that cleaned up but he didn’t and it cost us.  On our first possession of the second half we have our best drive all night long and it fell apart at the goal line thanks to a high snap.  I don’t know what’s going on and why it’s consistently happening but snaps for a center have to be second nature.  Something is going on with McCoy and Jim Turner has to get that fixed pronto or we could see it hurt us again.

As for the rest of the offensive line there’s not much more you can ask for.  We rushed for 366 yards and 37 carries averaging 9.9 yards per carry.  We only gave up one sack to go along with those yards so Knight had time to make decisions all night.  Outside of the snaps there’s not really anything to fault this offensive line for on Saturday night.  It took a little bit to get things going but I’m fine with an offensive line that gets better as the game wears on.  What’s probably the most impressive thing about Saturday night is this Arkansas defensive line is different than Auburn’s in that Arkansas’ defensive line is smaller and quicker.  In back to back weeks our line has handled two different styles of defensive lines.  We obviously did better against Arkansas but it’s good to see our offensive line can make adjustments against different styles.

As for the other receivers not named Reynolds I was glad to see Christian Kirk finally respond in the second half as his first half was just terrible.  He botched a punt and then dropped two balls that he normally catches.  RSJ had a nice catch for 47 yards that helped establish some offensive momentum.  Would like to see him more involved as he’s just a size mis-match but glad he had some involvement.  Hopefully his injury isn’t too bad as even if he’s not producing as much as he can he’s a mis-match issue that defenses have to account for.  It would be nice to get Speedy involved but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything to warrant it from a receiving standpoint.  We went deep to him a couple of times in the first half but he just doesn’t seem to get any separation.  They all did a tremendous job blocking which helped our running game.  Love receivers that understand the importance of blocking when the ball isn’t going through the air.

As a whole we were outstanding on third downs compared to previous games at 8 of 12.  I’ll take 67% third down conversions in any game.  On Red Zone trips we were 1 of 3 with one failure resulting from a missed field goal and the other was the fumble from the high snap.  Time of Possession was pretty bad only having the ball for 20 of 60 minutes but I’m torn on who’s fault that is.  In the first half we didn’t sustain drives but in the second half we did.  The defense did a nice job of getting off the field on third downs in the first half but in the second half they let Arkansas convert a lot of third downs so some of that time of possession is on the defense for not getting off the field on third downs.  We’ll place equal blame on the offense and defense for time of possession this game.  Most importantly though we scored 45 points to their 24 and that’s what matters.

The only negative of this offense from this game other than the high snaps and turnovers is it would be nice to see this offense get going much sooner in the game.  Maybe it’s just a case of wearing the defense down along with Mazzone and Knight figuring out what works best.  However, it would be nice to get a bigger cushion early on to see what the defense can really do knowing a team has to be more aggressive.  Then again, based on our defense’s performance which I’ll touch on next maybe we’re better off sand bagging making an offense think they can keep focusing on the run which is our greatest strength as a defense.  I doubt that’s the reason for the early struggles but it might have worked in our favor so far.

The Wrecking Crew:

That’s right, the Wrecking Crew.  I wish we didn’t give up almost 500 yards and 24 points but if you watched that game you know that defense played their asses off when they were out on the field.  7 of those points came off of Kirk’s muffed punt so what does that game look like if that didn’t happen?  Arkansas ripped off a 50ish yard TD run and a couple other long runs and that’s what they’re built for.  That was bound to happen.  So the Wrecking Crew wasn’t perfect but I’ll take that effort and end results any day.  There are some areas of improvement that I think Chief will focus on going forward.

You can’t ask more of the defensive line from what you saw on Saturday night.  Arkansas is big and built to run.  They want to lean on a defense until they break.  Our defensive line never even cracked much less broke.  The interesting thing about their performance is nobody truly stood out the entire game.  It was a complete effort by everyone on that defensive line.  Myles Garrett didn’t wreck shop like he has the other three games but it was clear Arkansas wasn’t going to let him.  They didn’t let the left tackle live on an island against him keeping someone else to help and rolled to the right most of the game.  Garrett never got a chance to tee off.  He got loose a couple of times but the QB wasn’t sitting there in the pocket like with other teams.  Credit to Arkansas for not letting Myles Garrett but Myles did make plays getting a fumble recovery and having a couple tackles for a loss including the goal line on runs to his side.

The best play by Myles Garrett was the 4th and goal in the second half.  Arkansas ran a sweep to his side which was the wide side and they were so worried about Myles they didn’t account for Armani Watts at all.  This allowed Watts a clean shot at the ball carrier and he made a great tackle for a loss.  Arkansas foolishly thought they could reach block Garrett with the left tackle but he couldn’t get there in time so the upback had to engage Garrett instead of Watts.  Just by Myles being Myles and the fact that the interior of our defensive line wasn’t budging made Arkansas run a play they couldn’t execute.

I encourage you to watch the play here.  https://youtu.be/9ALhb5Ivrsc?t=625

Go ahead and maximize the screen for the full effect.  The best is the Arkansas girl giving the Arkie coaching staff the business for being so stupid calling that play against the Wrecking Crew.  She knew EXACTLY what we were gonna do them Ags!

The most amazing thing about this play is Nick Harvey.  He had some bad plays on the night but he played this one perfectly.  Follow the ball carrier but watch the Aggie defender in the end zone tailing him.  If Watts doesn’t make the play then Harvey is actually in position to make a play as well but he never got the chance because Watts just made the play dead.  That’s just outstanding recognition by the ENTIRE defense to diagnose the play and let playmakers make plays.  If Watts somehow misses then Harvey gets a shot and if Harvey doesn’t get him Myles had freed himself from his normal hold so he was about to make a play as well.  Hell, even Zaycoven from the nose tackle position was in pursuit and had angled off to the goal line rather than pursue from behind so outstanding job by him to take an angle.  There was absolutely no way Arkansas was scoring on that play.  No way.  Not to discount the efforts on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down as those were more impressive from a physical standpoint but the play diagnosis by our defense on that 4th down was amazing.  Arkansas thought they could surprise us but in watching that replay I’m convinced there is NO way Arkansas scores there even if Watts misses his tackle.  Harvey or Myles would have got him.  Amazing work by the Wrecking Crew as that stand saved the game and when Knight hit Reynolds two players we were like Usain Bolt at the 60 meter mark and Arkansas wasn’t catching us.

The defensive tackles didn’t have a lot of stats but they were doing work all night consuming double teams by Arkansas’ big linemen.  What they did on the goal line stands was phenomenal.  The tackles were the key in Arkansas not being able to establish their normal inside runs and forcing outside runs where we had support from Myles, our linebackers, and safeties.  They ripped off some long inside runs but thanks to the work of the defensive tackles they were stalemated all night preventing them from ever establishing the inside run.  Daeshon Hall had a massive hit on Austin Allen that created a big fumble in the 4th quarter.  I’ve said it before and as every game passes it’s proven there’s no doubt this defensive front is one of if not the best in the country.  Enjoy these guys because it doesn’t get much better than this.  This is a special group.

The linebackers were outstanding all night as well.  Not one really sticks out which is okay because that means they’re all interchangeable and doing their job.  Alaka, Washington, Moore, George, Dodson, and even 12th Man Gillaspia are contributing which is a FAR cry from last year where we couldn’t even find one linebacker to really contribute.  They were out of position a couple of times but the majority of the time they’re in the right spot and making plays.  Really impressed with this group as they don’t have a dominating guy in the rotation but they’re all contributing and not making mistakes very often.  I’ll take what these guys are continuing to do.  This is like the 2012 linebacking group but we actually have depth and a little more athleticism.  George and Washington are seniors so there’s hope beyond this season unlike 2012 when we lost all three and had a significant dropoff in 2013.  Yes, I’m looking ahead at this group as we’ve not had linebacking depth in some time.

I won’t spend long on our safeties as they’re just flat out studs.  Seriously.  Best group in the country.  Watts had probably the two biggest plays on defense with the goal line 4th down stop in the 3rd quarter but his most amazing play was stripping the ball at the goal line in the 2nd quarter.  Arkansas would have gone up 17-7 at that point.  We then took the ball and kicked a field goal to tie it at 10.  If Armani doesn’t strip that ball who knows how that game would have turned out.  We would have had to really crawl back.  He did the same thing at Ole Miss last year when we turned the ball over in our own territory.  A couple plays later Watts strips the ball keeping Ole Miss from scoring which would have put the game further out of reach.  Of course we had Spav last year and couldn’t respond so we lost that game but glad this year we took advantage of Watts being a flat out baller.  Evans didn’t do anything that stood out like Watts but he was his usual self as was Donovan Wilson.

Now to the weak link of the defense and why Arkansas had so many yards.  Arkansas was able to throw for 371 yards with Austin Allen completing 67% of his passes.  Most of those yards came against our corners Nick Harvey and Priest Wilis.  They weren’t exactly terrible but they weren’t good by any stretch.  The Arkansas receivers were getting enough separation and Allen was flat out hitting the mark.  Our corners were at least in the area code so they weren’t totally burned.  They just let the Arkie receivers get position and they made the catches.  We also had some pass interference penalties that led to our goal line stands.  Since the Wrecking Crew held their ground those penalties ultimately didn’t burn us.  Now, I will say some of the pass interference calls were questionable as our corners weren’t exactly mauling the receivers on the calls.  They just looked worse than they actually were.  Chavis has some work to do with these guys as I’m afraid Arkansas just showed a blueprint how to beat A&M.   Now in our defense we were so focused on shutting down Arkansas’ run that we left our passing defense susceptible to a degree.  We won’t see an offensive line with the blocking scheme like Arkansas the rest of the year so I think we’ll be able to get to the quarterback where we just couldn’t do it against Arkansas.   I also think Donovan Wilson will play a bigger part in our pass defense against certain offenses that aren’t so run oriented.

Overall the most frustrating part of our defense was the inability to get off the field on third downs in the second half.  Arkansas was 9 of 16 but many of those were on 3rd and 6 are longer.  Getting off the field on 3rd and 6 or longer had been the calling card of this defense but I can think of at least 5 conversions of 3rd and 6 or longer where Arkansas passed for a first down.  We were getting pressure on Allen so he was getting hammered but the dude was delivering the ball right before getting hit and delivering the ball on the mark.  Maybe this was just an anomaly so we’ll see as we progress through the year but the lack of coverage is no doubt the most alarming thing from this game.

One last thing on people questioning the Wrecking Crew is this defense was on the field for 40 minutes this game and played 23 more snaps than our offense.  Everyone seems to think it was Arkansas’ defense that tired late in the game as we started pounding on them but that’s not really the case.  Arkansas’ defense played 20 less minutes and 23 less snaps than the Wrecking Crew.  It should have been our defense that was tired and not theirs based on that data.  However, what really happened is the Wrecking Crew never gave up and our offense finally got going and mentally beat an Arkansas defense that had no answers at times.  The Arkansas defense flat out quit despite playing half the time as The Wrecking Crew.  They weren’t tired.  Look at the points and yards if you want but don’t underestimate the effort and heart the Wrecking Crew played with on Saturday night.  Time and time again they made plays to keep Arkansas from getting up too big and once our offense finally got on track in the second half it was domination time.  The Wrecking Crew is the reason we’re sitting at 4-0 while our offense still figures it out a tad.  Don’t call them the Wrecking Crew if you want but just remember what I said you can do with your Gig thumb the rest of the season.

Special Teams:

Not a whole lot here other than LaCamera missed a 36 yarder that he has to hit.  Kirk bobbled the first punt return which set Arkansas up for a score inside our red zone.  Speedy had a great kickoff return of 42 yards but just kind of stepped out of bounds for no real reason.  Moorehead needs to work with him as I’d love to see the kid throw a juke or something but he appears uninterested in contact as he did the same thing last week in Auburn just stepping out of bounds for no real reason.  Speedy has the ability so I’d just love to see the kid tap into it.  We punted twice for an average of 47.5 yards so nothing really special there.

 

Going forward I really feel we’re a 6-0 team headed to Alabama.  Tennessee scares me a little more as Saturday’s second half Tennessee flat out stomped Florida.  If they finally found the right gear then our game against them is back to a toss-up they can win.  We’ll see what they do against Georgia this weekend before making a final determination.  I still don’t think we beat Alabama but it’s certainly possible if our offense comes out and plays 4 quarters of football to match the Wrecking Crew’s effort.

Ole Miss I still have as a toss-up after their game with Georgia and I have no idea what to expect with LSU now that Eddie O is running the show.  Don’t forget Eddie O took USC to 6-2 as the interim coach so I see this as a very similar situation.  Head coach at LSU is his dream job so he’s not going to throw in the towel by any stretch.  Eddie did lose to UCLA in his year at USC so that makes me feel better but he did beat #5 ranked Stanford that season.  I’m going to leave us at 9-3 for now.  There’s a very real chance we go 11-1 if we get past Tennessee, Ole Miss proves vulnerable again because let’s face it we don’t know what Georgia really is as they don’t look good right now, and Eddie O shows he’s still the same head coach that Ole Miss fired.  I feel very good about this team being on par with the 2012 team but just want a couple more weeks to see how we do along with those on our schedule before predicting too many wins.

This week we’ll likely be “resting” a couple key guys like RSJ, Myles, and Avery Gennessy so catching a really bad South Carolina after an Arkansas battle is nice.  Thank goodness this is a 3:00 game as that’s perfect for us.  We can fly in, wake up at a normal time, take care of business, and get back home at a decent hour as well.  I really assume we’ll take care of business this weekend so there’s not much to predict and just see how it plays out.  I’d love to see an Auburn type game from 2012 where after beating Mississippi State to put people on notice we just ran Auburn out of their own stadium to truly make the statement we were better than anyone expected.  If this team is truly as mature as they say they are we start off stronger than any game on offense and walk away with this thing by half.  We shall see.

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