Texas A&M Review
Amazing. No matter how you feel about the outcome of the Alabama game, you certainly have to admit that Johnny Football was simply amazing. His speed. His elusiveness. His passing ability. All were amazing. Spotting the Aggies a 20 point first quarter lead. That was amazing. Giving up seven consecutive third down conversions. Allowing Manziel to complete 21 of his first 23 passes. Allowing Johnny Football to rush for 74 yards in the first quarter alone. Amazing. And, despite all of his heroics, in the end Alabama actually outgained A&M and the Tide found themselves at the Aggies’ two yard line with a chance to win the game! What an amazing football game…
So, what went wrong? This week we are going to take a little bit of a different approach with the game review as we’ll try to highlight some of the problems with the plan, the execution and the approach that determined the Crimson Tide’s fate this past Saturday. The Florida game and the LSU game both provided the same blueprints to stopping or slowing down Johnny Football but this plan really wasn’t implemented until it was far too late. Mississippi State, Florida and LSU all showed that A&M could be susceptible to the running game but Alabama didn’t seem to have the running game atop their “to do” list against the Aggies. And, of course, this game took place the week after the hyped LSU victory. Coming into this game, I feared what I like to call “Finish Line Syndrome” where the team thinks that they have slain the dragon and crossed the finish line when there are actually still more dragons to slay and more miles to run. I think Bama was suffering from “Finish Line Syndrome” and we’ll start our review here….
Finish Line Syndrome
When the Alabama team came running out of the tunnel, there was little to no emotion coming out of the tunnel with them. There was no jumping around. No hype. No smiling faces. They simply ran out and took their positions on the sidelines. My dad and I looked at each other and, before the game even started, we could tell that there didn’t seem to be much of a passion or desire from the team at the start of the game.
Alabama won the toss and Saban wanted the ball so that he could begin the game asserting the Tide’s dominance. A first down run for no gain (Michael Williams was unable to hold his block) was followed with a pass play. As AJ dropped back, he looked confused and panicked, leaving the pocket for a two yard gain. This was the story of the day. On the third play, AJ was again flushed from the pocket and missed a wide open Amari Cooper. The offense began as flatly as they had appeared coming out of the tunnel.
When it was 14-0 the sidelines were still. There was no emotion, no fist pumping, nothing. Finally, when Alabama scored to make it 20-7, the sidelines became lively. Players were talking, yelling and exhorting their teammates on. The defense’s sidelines are directly in front of our seats and it was blatantly obvious that Bama was not ready to play when the first whistle blew. Now, give A&M plenty of credit here as their pace and style of play has resulted in scoring on 7 straight opening possessions of their last seven games. But, to me it was evident that visions of the LSU victory were still dancing in their heads and the physical toll of the 40 minutes of hell the defense spent on the Death Valley turf were impacting them as well. If the Tide thought they had accomplished anything by beating LSU, at 20-0 they finally decided there was more work to be done as they clearly had not crossed the finish line to the season just yet.
The Offensive Gameplan
With A&M employing their hurry up offense, it was critical that Alabama control the time of possession and use the Aggies’ quick pace to the detriment of their own defense. The quicker the A&M possession, the quicker their own Aggie defense would have to take the field and get pounded on by Alabama’s huge offensive line. A&M’s defensive line was undersized and their defensive coordinator admitted to being concerned about how they’d stand up against the Bama elephants so it was curious when Alabama attempted to take to the air to attack the Aggies. This played into the hands of their front four, in my opinion.
Two of the first three plays of the game were passing plays. On each of the pass plays, AJ had time but appeared to be confused by the coverages the Aggies were playing. I personally love the defensive style A&M employs. They’ll put 8 or 9 men into the box with each one looking like a potential blitzer. Then, at the snap, four may come or nine may come – AJ never knew what the coverages were or who was blitzing until he snapped the ball.
The next time Bama got the ball (down 7-0), Lacy started the drive off with an 18 yard run. After another Lacy run set up 2nd and 5, Bama once again took to the air two consecutive times. But, even more curious than resorting to passing plays when a first down run set up an early opportunity to pound on the Aggie line, the Tide employed their own hurry up offense! Huh? Never has ball control been more important than in this game and yet the Tide concentrated on employing a hurry up offense and utilizing the passing game. On 3rd and 5, the Aggies baited Bama into throwing one of their famous crossing patterns and Kenny Bell got smoked. The resulting deflection was picked off and A&M was off to a 14-0 start. Three rushes netted 23 yards and four pass plays resulted in a two yard scramble, three incompletions and an interception. This on a day when pounding the football was of paramount importance to winning the game. Incidentally, between Yeldon and Lacy, they averaged 4.65 yards per carry so I truly believe the running game was available.
The Defensive Gameplan
Florida and LSU both began their games against A&M using a four man front line and both had to bail out of this package early. What happened was that with two bigger defensive ends, Manziel was easily able to break containment to get outside and destroy the defenses with his legs. It was 14-0 before Bama showed their first three man front but oftentimes they used Adrian Hubbard or Denzel Duvall as the second middle linebacker where they’ve rarely if ever lined up. Strange that we would ask two defensive ends to play middle linebacker. LSU and Florida each employed a three man line and had two fast linebackers tracking down Manziel. But, more than that, they would each rush a fourth and fifth defender who were usually defensive backs – this made it nearly impossible for Manziel to break containment and out run the defenders to the corner.
The first Tide blitz came on A&M’s third drive of the game when it was already 14-0. Two plays later on a critical 3rd and 6 from the A&M 41, Bama sent Mosley and Lester from Johnny Football’s right. This was perfect design and was exactly how LSU and Florida shut down Manziel as he always wants to roll to his right. So, at the snap, Mosley and Lester came crashing in from Manziel’s right which, naturally, flushed him left. But, inexplicably, at the snap the defensive end on the left (Hubbard) disengaged from the rush and floated to the middle of the line in some sort of “spy” look. This was a quick death to the defense as it left the left side of the A&M line wide open and 32 yards later Manziel had converted a critical first down and continued to grow the legend of Johnny Football.
Believe it or not, Alabama eventually did slow down the A&M offense by sending Mosley, Clinton-Dix, Sunseri and Lester on a variety of blitzes. Additionally, John Fulton the boy became John Fulton the man as he was placed on an island with A&M’s huge 6’6 receiver Evans and Fulton eventually shut him down. After converting their first 7 third downs, A&M was 4 of 14 afterwards. And, after rushing for an ungodly 74 yards in the first quarter, Manziel only rushed for 18 yards the rest of the game. But, the damage was done in the first quarter and it was due in large part to a poor initial scheme. There were numerous times that Tide defensive ends crashed down, ignoring the “mush rush” principles that had been effective against the Aggies. This was critical early because Bama didn’t blitz at all during the first two possessions so the defensive ends had to contain Manziel. They didn’t. And, on the third possession, Bama botched a blitz that should have stuffed the play and the drive. They didn’t. As a result, it was 20-0 before you could blink an eye.
Coach Saban found a way to slow down the no huddle quick paced attack of the Aggies and, to a degree, it was pretty ingenious. Each time that A&M subbed in a player on offense, Saban took that opportunity to sub in players on his defense. In person, this appeared to be an exercise in creating mass confusion on our own sidelines but, after watching the telecast, I now understand it a little more. By subbing in players each time A&M did, it forced the referees to stand over the ball as they stopped the game to allow the Bama players to come on and off the field. My original perception was that Saban was simply trying to match his personnel groupings with A&M’s but, as it turned out, he was just using this method as a way of slowing down the pace of play. This part of the plan worked beautifully. However, the downside was that the Bama players were constantly being thrown onto the field without knowing what the play was. So, you’d see Tide players running backwards onto the field, waving frantically to get the signals relayed. Oftentimes the Tide defense wasn’t even set when A&M snapped the ball. So, while the substitutions certainly helped to slow down the pace of play, it also seemed to be detrimental to the overall defense as you saw numerous Tide players desperately trying to figure out what the defensive calls were.
Three Consecutive Plays that Changed the Game
So, even with Bama’s first quarter sleep walk, there were still several chances to take the lead back from the Aggies. With A&M leading 23-17 in the fourth quarter, Bama took possession after the Aggies missed a field goal. Momentum was clearly shifting. On the second play of the drive, AJ underthrew a wide open Amari Cooper but still completed the pass for a 50 yard gain. A perfect throw would have seen Alabama take the lead as Cooper had beaten his man by 10 yards but, no matter, momentum had shifted, right? Then came the first of three plays that changed the game:
- Yeldon burst over the left side into a huge crease and drove his legs down to the Aggie 30 yard line. Unfortunately, while his legs made it to the 30, the football didn’t. The Aggies recovered the fumbled football and had the ball on their own 34, averting disaster because the Tide had truly changed until the fumble occurred.
- As Bama sent a four man rush against Manziel on first down, he rolled a little to his right and allowed Swope to outrace Vinnie Sunseri in coverage. Robert Lester picked up Swope but was at a bad angle – this allowed Swope to get open by about three yards. With Clinton-Dix crashing down on him from his safety position, Swope’s fingertips reeled in the perfectly thrown ball, beating three Tide defenders for a ridiculous 42 yard gain.
- On the next play, the Aggies scored their only touchdown of the second half on another perfectly thrown ball. One of the few times A&M attacked Dee Milliner resulted in a beautiful throw and catch and a 29-17 lead with only 8 minutes to go. In 33 seconds, A&M turned a likely 24-23 deficit into a 29-17 lead. It was a crushing blow.
The Final Nail in the Coffin
In a spectacular turn of events, Bama completed a 54 yard touchdown strike to Amari Cooper and then completed another 54 yard pass to Kenny Bell. While the pass to Bell was underthrown, the result was a 1st and goal from the Aggies’ 6 yard line and a chance for Alabama to finally take the lead and possibly win the game.
Inexplicably, Alabama stayed in hurry up mode as they rushed down to the six yard line to run the next play. At this point, time (4 minutes left) was not an issue and, if anything, you wanted the time to tick of the clock so that Johnny Football wouldn’t have time for any of his heroics.
On first down, Bama was in the shotgun and they called a pass play. This by itself was befuddling. AJ’s one and only look was to Eddie Lacy out of the backfield and, while he wasn’t wide open, Lacy was clearly open on the play. Instead of throwing the pass to Lacy, AJ held the ball and took a sack setting up second and goal from the 6 yard line.
On second down, Bama trotted out their goal line package. This is effective from the goal line but it’s not typically effective from the six yard line. Two tight ends and Kelly Johnson trotted onto the field and A&M countered with a goal line package of their own. Down here, Bama should have stayed in their spread look as it had a better chance of keeping the Aggies off balance. At best, Bama should have trotted out the goal line look on FIRST down and let that play set up the next three. With only six yards to go and four plays to get the six yards, math tells you that Bama should have started this set of downs with a run. Instead, Lacy was stuffed on second down and an easy six yard conversion transformed into a difficult third and goal from the six.
After a crazy AJ scramble to the two yard line, Bama went with their best 2 point attempt play in an attempt to win the game on fourth down. The Aggies played the play perfectly and the pass was never open. With AJ rolling right and only two receivers to choose from (standing within 3 yards of one another), neither was open and there were no other options. Game. Set. Match.
Let’s face it, you can’t turn the ball over three times and expect to win a game. You can’t jump offsides on fourth down with a chance to return a punt for a touchdown or, at worst, with the ball and 30 seconds to travel 50 yards. You just can’t do stupid things like that and expect to win. You definitely can’t spot a team a 20-0 lead in the first quarter and expect to win. The fact that Alabama did all these things and still had a chance to win is pretty mind boggling.
Much like the LSU game last year, it seemed to me that Bama was forced to step outside of being themselves and the results were not surprising. The Tide offense resorted to the hurry up in a game where they desperately needed to control the clock. The Tide defense moved a rarely used corner to the starting unit. They moved defensive ends to middle linebacker positions. And, once again their run stuffing safeties were exposed as they attempted to cover wide receivers.
By the time Alabama decided to kick it in gear, it was all but over with. But, credit Alabama for never quitting as they provided a “woulda coulda shoulda” ending that never seemed possible when they were down 20-0 and 29-17.
Now we wait and we hope that Notre Dame, KansasState or Oregon can find some way to have their own detrimental sleep walking loss. Oh, and we’ll need two of those losses to happen, of course. But, more importantly than that, Alabama is going to have to use the next two weeks to figure out how LSU and Texas A&M have absolutely torched their secondary because, if they don’t, Georgia will be more than happy to hang a second loss on the Tide.