Thoughts on the South Carolina Game

Jace at SCThe good part about the Clemson game earlier this year is it showed A&M can play with an elite team.  The bad part about that Clemson game is it fooled a lot of people into thinking A&M could be an elite team this season.  Texas A&M is not currently an elite team and will not be this season.  As I said coming into this season the offensive line and secondary are major areas of concern.  Those two things keep getting proven out week after week.  They’ve not been a major liability yet but they’re still not even close to being on an elite level.

Those Aggie fans that are down on the way A&M is WINNING are missing HOW the Aggies are winning.  They’re mainly bitching about Mond and/or how the Aggies aren’t putting teams away.  I’ll get to Mond later but the reason the Aggies aren’t putting teams away is because this team has flaws.  Opponents are able to exploit those flaws to keep the game close.  At the same time, those bitching Aggie fans aren’t giving credit to a team that won’t quit fighting and hasn’t let the other team gain full momentum when they’re making a push.  Just when it looks like the other team might grab all of the momentum this Aggie team does something to make sure it doesn’t happen.  This trait needs to be recognized by Aggie fans.  This isn’t an immensely talented team but they’re taking care of business winning games they could have lost.

I didn’t get a chance to write up my thoughts on the Kenucky game.  I was in Cleveland for the Astros game but the Arkansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina game have basically been the same game for the most part.  Sure, Kentucky took the early lead on A&M but they never really had a lot of momentum.  After all, Kentucky never ran a play on the Aggie side of the field in regulation.  The Aggies controlled things for most of the game against Kentucky.  Same thing with Arkansas and South Carolina.

What complaining Aggie fans are missing is how there’s a game plan developed for the strengths and weaknesses of both teams every week.  That game plan seems to be pretty spot on and when it’s not working adjustments are made.  It’s clear to me Jimbo Fisher and his staff know what they have in their Aggie offense, defense, and special teams.  They also appear pretty good at identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of their opponents each week.  There’s a cohesive game plan each week to depend on the strengths and cover the weaknesses as much as possible.

These games might be boring or even concerning but this is an Aggie team that has a plan.  In the past we’d put up points but there was no rhyme or reason.  The Aggie offense would sputter on drives and then would hit a quick touch down.  The Aggie defense would bring pressure and get a sack but then would give up a big touchdown on more than one occasion.  It was just a hodge podge of offense, defense, and special teams.  There was no cohesive plan.  Just individual units going out and hopefully making more plays than the other team.

This team is different.  This staff and team have a cohesive plan to have more points at the end of four quarters.  It begins and ends with keeping the Aggie defense off the field.  Our defensive line and linebackers named Alaka and Dodson are as good as anyone’s in the country.  Our secondary is not.  The last thing we want to do is get in a shootout with another team.  This team is not built for that.  We can control the line of scrimmage so that’s what we want other teams to play into.  We want an opponent’s offense to try and establish something at the line of scrimmage rather than sling the ball around.

Our offensive line and running backs aren’t built to grind people into submission.  We don’t have major deep threats and even if we did our offensive line can’t hold up well enough to buy the needed time.  This is an offense that has some talent but it has to take short and intermediate yards based on what the defense gives them.  This offense has to be smart with the ball and slowly move up and down the field for a host of reasons.  This offense simply can’t dictate it’s will on an opposing defense.

With all of that, I think Jimbo is being very smart from a play calling standpoint.  He’s not sandbagging plays by any stretch but he’s calling fairly conservative plays based on what he truly feels the defense will give them.  Most of the time he’s been right.  When the offense needs to do something they’ve been able to do it for the most part.  When needed they’ve been able to move the ball up and down the field chewing clock and yards.  We could use some help in the Red Zone but the talent just isn’t there to pound the ball once we get there.  We’ve still got to methodically move the ball based on what the defense gives us.  For the most part this offense has done that.  There’s plenty of room for improvement but at least there’s a solid plan and understanding of what’s possible.  There’s been a lot of timely play calls this season on both sides of the ball.  It doesn’t appear plays are just being called with no reason for the opponent or momentum of the game.  This is a different team and staff from in the past.  There’s an actual legitimate game plan each week.

I would love to see A&M close out games stronger with no threat in the 4th quarter but I like what I see from this staff.  For the first time in a long time I see a coaching staff that has a solid feel for their team and the opponent.  With that feel they’re creating and calling a game plan that’s won games we might have lost in the past.  At the end of the day a win matters more than anything else.  Don’t get lost in the style of how we win.  Stay focused on the fact we’re actually winning win momentum is swinging against us.  That’s a great sign.

On to the South Carolina game…

Offense:

Kellen Mond:

I’m starting with Mond this week because I’m tired of Aggie fans bitching about his play.  Is he perfect?  Hell no.  Has he been good enough for the Aggies to have won every game except the two teams that have perennially been in the College Football Playoff?  YES!!!  Yes, he has.  If you think Kellen Mond is inadequate and needs to be benched either stop watching Aggie games or go watch highlights from 2017.  Kellen Mond is LIGHT YEARS better than last year and easily in the Top 25% of college quarterbacks.  He’s a true sophomore that continues to develop.  He has a suspect offensive line and a decent but not great receiving corps.  He has no Mike Evans, Ryan Swope, Josh Reynolds, or Christian Kirk.  He’s still out there making plays though.

On Saturday Mond was 25/37 for 353 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.  That’s a 68% completion percentage.  That’s a DAMN good day at the office for a quarterback in the SEC not named Tua.  He also had some nice runs to account for the challenges of our offensive line.

Can Mond improve as a quarterback?  He sure can and likely will as he gets more experience.  Does he need to be benched in favor of someone else?  HELL.  NO.  If you truly think Mond isn’t the best option for this Aggie team then you’re a football moron.  I don’t know a nicer way to put it.  You don’t know anything about football and the quarterback position.  Especially in the college game.  Kellen Mond is a true sophomore playing in a new system behind a suspect line and no true playmaker to throw to.  Kellen Mond is doing just fine as the Aggie quarterback.  If you don’t think so, go watch some Bob Ross videos on YouTube and learn to paint some nature scenes.  It would be a better use of your time than watching Aggie football as you’re watching something you don’t have a clue about.

Sorry about the rant but it’s just frustrating to hear and read people complaining about Kellen Mond’s performance.  He’s doing a damn good job all things considered.  There’s not a better option on this team at quarterback.  I promise you that.

Running Back:

I love Trayveon Williams as a running back but this wasn’t his game.  For most of this game South Carolina wasn’t going to let him get established.  Not including Kellen Mond runs we ran the ball 24 times to 37 passes.  That’s a slight variation from what we’ve done in previous games.  South Carolina stacked a lot of people in the box basically daring A&M to pass.  Luckily, Jimbo noticed that and rather than try and establish something that wasn’t there he let Mond run and throw.

When Williams did get the ball he was his usual self where he’d squirm for 3-4 yards along with a couple nice intermediate runs.  Most impressive was his carries on the final drive of the game.  His first three carries of the drive went for 4, 9, and 6 yards.  His next carry was for a loss of 3 yards but the next play was the 23 yard pass to Sternberger that got us into South Carolina territory.  Corbin had a couple nice rushes while Williams was out and then Williams came back in with 1st and goal from the 9.  Williams ripped off a 6 yard run to set up and 2nd and goal at the 3 and then took the next carry to pay dirt for a big touchdown.  That drive consumed 78 yards and 5:45 resulting in a rushing touchdown that basically put the game away.

Statistically it wasn’t one of A&M’s better rushing days but South Carolina didn’t want A&M to establish the running game.  However, when A&M needed it most they were able to put the ball on the ground and control the clock along with punching it in the end zone.  Had the defense held on South Carolina’s next possession it gives this game a totally different feel.  The running game did their part when they had to.

Offensive Line:

This will never be a dominant offensive line but against South Carolina they were pretty serviceable.  They were confused by a couple early blitzes but for the most past gave Mond enough time to throw the rest of the game.  Mond was sacked in the 1st quarter and then early in the 2nd quarter but wasn’t sacked after that.

Penalty wise I remember one holding call on a 19 yard run by Trayveon so that nullified that.  I don’t remember any false starts.  If your offensive line has one hold and no false starts you can’t really complain about that.

This line was a key part of the final touchdown drive helping Williams grind out yards including the precious 9 yards needed to score.  I would like to see this line be better in the Red Zone really imparting their will but I just don’t think there’s enough talent to do so.  Either way if they do what they did against South Carolina the rest of the way they’ll give us a chance against every defense left on the schedule.  It won’t be dominant but it’ll be good enough to help us win if every other unit does their job as well.  There’s still lots of room for improvement with this offensive line but I have to give them credit they’ve done a better job than I expected coming into this season.

Wide Receivers:

This unit was shorthanded this week with Ausbon and Kendrick Rogers being out.  Jalen Preston is still coming along slowly so that basically left Sternberger, Quartney Davis, Cam Buckley, and Hezekiah Jones to throw to.  Outside of Sternberger none of those guys are true playmakers.  Those 4 guys caught 22 balls for 340 yards so they had a damn nice day.  We all know Sternberger had a day catching 7 balls for 145 yards including a touchdown and taking defenders for a ride.  Don’t discount Quartney Davis’ effort catching 7 balls for 127 yards though.  Buckley and Jones also pitched in catching three balls each so they all contributed at some point.

Even shorthanded it’s great to see them step up as South Carolina was basically daring A&M to beat them through the air with their defensive alignment.  We still need some true playmakers in our receiving corps but I can’t say anything bad at all about the effort by these guys on Saturday.  When they were called upon they delivered.  That’s all you can ask for.

Defense:

Front 6:

Not a lot to say about these guys that I haven’t already said this season.  Against South Carolina it was more of the same.  South Carolina running backs rushed 14 times for 67 yards with a long run of 27 yards.  Their other long was 14 yards right before that run.  On back to back plays they got 41 yards that accounted for 60% of their rushing yards by a running back.  Other than those 2 runs they got about 2 yards a carry from their running backs.  That is solid.

If there’s one negative it’s that we only got one sack.  We did get 4 additional quarterback hurries so it’s not like we weren’t bringing some pressure.  Bentley likes to run so my guess is the plan for our front 6 was to not blow lane assignments to keep the running backs and quarterback contained so they didn’t break off any big plays.  For the most part we did that.

Would it be nice to get more pressure?  Sure, but these guys aren’t built for that.  They’re big bodies designed to consume blockers and space.  They do an excellent job.  Complaining about the lack of pressure kind of feels like complaining about Mond holding on to the ball too long.  What they’re doing is working so no need in really changing it.

Secondary:

As I’ve been saying all year this is our Achilles heel.  On Saturday it showed up in the second half.  In the first half Jake Bentley was 6 of 17 for 46 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  That’s a 35% completion rate which is really bad.  That’s as good as the secondary has been all year I believe.

Charles Oliver made a great interception mid-way through the first quarter keeping South Carolina from getting points on the board.  That potential touchdown wasn’t the fault of the secondary giving up any passes.  It was set up due to a personal foul on the previous punt giving South Carolina the ball near mid-field.  The first two offensive plays were the runs of 41 yards.  Two plays later the personal foul on Renfro that got him ejected setting up South Carolina deep in the Red Zone.  There was South Carolina with 1st and goal at the 5.  Oliver made the play to bail out other mistakes by the defense and special teams.  Credit to him for making that play.

Statistically the first half looked pretty dominant for the secondary but there were some cracks in the dam that were exposed.  Most notably Bentley missed some passes where his receivers had Myles Jones burned pretty bad.  It’s pretty clear South Carolina took note of that going into the locker room.

The second half was a different story as Bentley went 11 of 18 for 177 yards and three touchdowns, two two-point conversions, and no interceptions.  That’s not really all that dominant from a percentage and yards standpoint but the three touchdowns and two-point conversions were killer.  One of the touchdowns was a 22 yarder and the other a 33 yarder.  The secondary had problems covering in what was a reasonably short field on both of those.  I don’t like giving up long scores but if a receiver makes a great play to break off a long score you just tip your hat.  When teams are scoring touchdowns on 22 and 33 yard passes your secondary either busted its coverage or just isn’t talented enough.  I think for the Aggie secondary it’s a little of both.  The coverage was somewhat busted and the defensive backs didn’t have the athleticism to make up for it.

We also had some big penalties along the way that hurt us including two targeting calls on Renfro and Wilson.  I think the call on Renfro was technically correct but the call on Wilson was a little suspect.  That call on Renfro brought in Myles Jones and he got picked on pretty bad.  He had a couple of big pass interference penalties along with just some bad coverage all the way around.  Charles Oliver looked decent on a lot of pass plays but he’s still not a dominant shut down corner.  The second half likely looks different with Renfro in there but I think South Carolina would have likely still completed 50% of their passes for 120ish yards and a couple touchdowns.

The safeties have become bigger question marks in my mind.  Derrick Tucker played early in the game and did something that caught my attention but I can’t remember what.  I believe he got burned on a pass play that Bentley also missed on.  Whatever it was he looked completely clueless about the play on the field which he’s been prone to do this season.  Looking at the stat sheet his name doesn’t show up for anything.  Donovan Wilson, Deshawn Capers-Smith, Keldrick Carper, and Leon O’Neal, Jr. all show up on the stat sheet.  Looks like Tucker got pulled early and didn’t see the field again.  Fine by me as I think he’s a big liability at this point.  He’s talented but he doesn’t know his position very well and has also has had issues tackling this season.

How you fix this secondary I don’t know.  At this point it’s clear Renfro and Oliver are our best cover guys.  I don’t think Clifford Chattman coming back changes that.  Renfro and Oliver are serviceable but they’re going to get burned here and there.  At safety I think you just keep rotating guys in and out.  Wilson isn’t the best in coverage but he’s a great third linebacker playing the run and short routes.  You just need to make sure he’s not in a position where he must cover someone beyond 15 yards.  He’s not good going backwards.  Capers-Smith while not extremely talented seems to know his assignments and does a good job tackling.  Like the rest of the secondary he’s going to be prone to lapses in coverage.  I would like to see Leon O’Neal get more playing time if it’s warranted.  His shirt is burned so might as well get him as much experience as is reasonable.  We going to need him in a big way next season.

Basically, this defense is what it is.  We’re great up front but suspect in the secondary.  If we can eliminate ALL penalties (including targeting) and limit the big touchdown plays this unit can help us win the rest of the games on the schedule.  You just have to assume against the rest of the SEC teams there’s a good chance we’ll give up 20 to 25 points if a team has any semblance of a passing attack.  That’s not great but it’s not horrible.  You can win games if you’re honest in your game plan each week looking to minimize the secondary exposure.  Just eliminate any chance of getting into a shootout.

Special Teams:

Mann oh Mann:

Brand Mann “only” averaged 52 yards on 4 punts but he hit 3 over 50 yards including a 67 yarder.  Obviously his best play was on the punt return where he created a fumble the Aggies recovered.  The dude’s legend just continues to grow.  I haven’t paid attention to every punter in college football this season but I can’t imagine someone out there better than him.

Seth Small:

Seth Small was 4 of 5 on field goals including his first one which was a 52 yarder.  He missed on his second field goal which was 42 yards but he then connected on his next 3.  Those were critical so good to see him respond when needed.  I know a lot of Aggies have been down on this kid but I’m hoping he’s finally right.  Remember this is a guy that was perfect in his debut in Tuscaloosa.  It could be MUCH worse than what he’s done so far as a true freshman.  Surely he only gets better with experience and confidence.

Returns:

Nothing of any real substance here as Corbin and Paul had a couple decent returns trying to make something happen.  Probably the best thing about our kick teams were limiting Deebo Samuel on his two returns.  He’s an incredibly explosive player and he got to the 20 once and the 12 the other time.  He did nothing on the two kick offs he tried to make something happen.  Nice job but our kick off coverage team.  Our punt coverage was a bit suspect but thanks to Mann oh Mann lowering the boom it didn’t hurt us.

 

Looking Forward:

I still can’t move the needle from my 8-4 prediction before the season started.  So far I’ve nailed every game.  I truly believe in what Jimbo is doing but the secondary and offensive line is leaving little room for error.  I love the 6:00 pm start in Starkville as I think that works in our favor.  The 11:00 am starts in Starkville have been trouble for us.  I think we stand a good chance to win that game but it won’t be easy.  It’ll be tougher than our last three games so we can’t make mistakes.

Auburn sure looks like a possible win after the last two weeks but never under-estimate Gus Malzahn backed up against the wall.  If he comes out slinging the ball looking to test our secondary it could be tough.  They have a pretty solid defense that will be tough to score on.  I think the Tennessee win actually works against A&M.  We don’t want a desperate Auburn team.  It’s not a great Auburn team but neither is A&M.  That’s a 50/50 game right now to me even with how Auburn has looked of late.  Gus may wake up looking to throw that sucker 50 times on us.

Ole Miss should be a win but we could get into a shootout with them.  If that’s the case it’s not the easy win it looks to be.  They have talent at receiver and QB.  If their line can buy their receivers enough time to get downfield their QB can hit them.  I don’t think it happens and A&M wins but it’s a matchup problem for us to a degree.

UAB should be a win so no concerns there.

LSU just beat an elite Georgia team so if you’d pick A&M over LSU right now you’re a damn fool.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again it fascinates me how every season after a “bad loss” everyone wants to write off LSU as a bad team.  They’re as loaded as any team in the country outside of Alabama.  On any given day they can beat any team in the country and even give Bama a scare.  I do think A&M can beat LSU so it’s not impossible but that will not be an easy win by any stretch.  There’s a legit possibility there’s two 9-2 teams looking for their 10th win in their final game.  If you don’t think LSU will be up for that wanting their 10th win you don’t follow college football very closely.

I think we’re in a good position to go 8-4 and with some good breaks wind up at 9-3.  If we finish 9-3 and then win a bowl game to get 10 wins we’ll be well on our way to Make Aggie Football Great Again.  It’s looking very possible at this point.  It may not be as pretty or convincing as you want but it’ll be a remarkable job by the players and coaches.

#MAFGA

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