Now that we've set the stage for Saturday's game, let's talk about the actual football. Texas A&M is 6-5 on the season, 3-4 in conference play. Among the wins, two should be considered respectable - a one-point win in College Station over Oklahoma State and a 22-point win over Nebraska in Lincoln. Wins over Baylor and Fresno State are expected wins, while Montana State and Louisiana-Monroe are more or less throwaways. (Even with Alabama's choke job against UL-M this weekend, they can't be considered a victory of note.)
We all know A&M's had a rough season, but without watching all of their games this year - as I have not - it's not been totally clear why. So let's start with a look at the game-by-game, big picture numbers, excluding A&M's two throwaway contests. The below chart shows A&M's yards per carry and quarterback rating in each game, as well as that of their opponents.
The chart makes clear Texas A&M has struggled in a number of ways, but one of the most glaring issues has been the Aggies' inability to put together a complete game on either side of the football (let alone across the board). That probelm is a little easier to see with some color aids, so take a look at the below "translated" chart, where the cutoff for a good ("Yay!") rushing day for A&M is above 4.0 yards per carry and a good ("Yay!") passing day is defined by a passer rating above 125. Conversely, a good day for the A&M rushing defense is defined by holding the opponent's offense below 4.0 yards per carry or a 125 passer rating.
Three times this year (at Miami, vs Kansas, at Missouri), A&M has performed poorly in three of the four facets of the game. Once (at Oklahoma) they performed poorly in all facets. Obviously, that's not good.
Let's look a little deeper, though. I didn't expect much from the Aggie defense this season, but I did think this Aggie offense would shape up to be a difficult one to deal with. On occasion, it has been, but overall, the unit has not produced as well as many thought it would. Though the team rushing averages are eerily identical to last season, I did notice one big difference. Take a look.
Though A&M's overall rushing production hasn't dipped in 2007, there've been some interesting changes in distribution. Most notably, Michael Goodsen's production per play has dropped by nearly a third, from 6.7 yards per attempt all the way down to a pedestrian 4.5. After a phenomenal freshman season, Goodsen - reportedly playing through a series of minor injuries - simply hasn't had the breakout year many predicted. The big runs which helped make him such a phenomenal freshman have largely disappeared.
With Goodsen not providing big plays for the offense, there's been additional pressure on the passing game to provide plays that move the football chunks at a time. But quarterback Stepehen Mcgee, though once again rushing the football well this year, has been the team's biggest weakness on offense. Once more, to the charts:
While last year McGee performed the role of solid complement to the rushing attack, this season he's been atrocious, as his completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD-INT ratio, and QB rating have taken a significant dip. With no big plays from Goodsen and no ability to pass the football - while often playing from behind - the Aggies have suffered.
All this is good news for Texas, right? Not necessarily: the Aggies beat Texas last season with just 13 pass attempts among their 64 offensive plays, finishing the day with nearly 250 yards rushing while holding the ball for over 35 minutes of the game. In other words, McGee wasn't a passing threat against Texas last year, either.
But Michael Goodsen sure was. On A&M's opening drive of the game, the speedy freshman took a 3rd and 1 rush to the right outside edge, turned the corner, and scored on a 41-yard touchdown to put his team up 6-0. Playing with a lead against a Texas team with a broken running game and an over-dependency on its quarterback (who was playing hurt), the conditions were absolutely perfect for an Aggie-style game.
Which it was. Texas A&M stuffed Texas' feeble running game, dared the weak-armed McCoy to beat them (he couldn't), and ate up the clock on offense with run after run after run. The Texas defense, which entered the game second in the nation against the run, could not push A&M off the field on third down. If there was one stat which told the story of last year's game against Texas A&M, it was the third down conversions: the Aggies converted 10 of 16, Texas just 2 of 9.
Though I'll preface this by saying that Texas did not deserve to win last year (and A&M did what they needed to do), it's worth emphasizing that the Aggies squeaked out a narrow victory under optimal conditions. Though they get this year's game in College Station, the Aggie offense remains one-dimensional, the defense continues to struggle, and the Longhorns are far more offensively mature than they were a year ago.
Heading into Friday's game, that last point has to be the cause of greatest concern for A&M. Though the Texas defense has limped down the finish line, the Longhorn offense seemingly has rounded into shape, highlighted by a near-flawless performance against Texas Tech in Austin. Assuming Jamaal Charles' ankle is at full-strength by Friday, 12 points will not be enough to fuel an Aggie win this year. Unfortunately for A&M, their team is ill-suited to beat good teams in any game that isn't dictated by A&M's tempo. In short: if Texas' offense is working well, the Aggies won't be able to keep up.
The keys for A&M to make a game of this, then?
1) Don't fall behind early. Texas A&M has struggled mightily this year when playing from behind, and they will again on Friday if it comes to that. Critical to their success is creating a game where each team is laboring through long drives and battling hard for points. The Aggie offense with a lead is a vastly different beast than the Aggie offense trying to catch up.
2) Rough up McCoy. Texas' offensive improvement of late has come about as McCoy has become an improvisational wizard of sorts, keeping the ball on runs, Stephen McGee-ing his way to tough rushing yards, and creating offense with his uncanny scrambling ability. Teams that have beat Texas in the last two years have largely done so with success getting to and knocking around the Longhorn quarterback. When McCoy is comfortable in the game, darting about making plays, the Texas offense works. When he's been hit hard and playing like a man who knows he might get knocked out at any moment, the offense has faltered.
3) Be opportunistic. With so little ability to move the ball through the air, the Aggie offense has to take advantage of every good opportunity presented to it. If they get a short field via special teams or turnover, they've got to put points on the board. A&M simply can't afford to play the game assuming that 10, 15, 20 points will win it. If I'm coaching the Aggies, I'm aggressively seeking points when they're available. The Longhorns' weakness right now is on defense, not offense.
4) Make Texas one-dimensional. Last, I think the only sane strategy for A&M on defense is to commit wholly to stopping the run. I'd commit eight defenders to the box, send defenders to the backfield like I'm Duane Akina, and see what I could do to disrupt Jamaal Charles and/or Colt McCoy. The most sensible overarching strategy for making Texas uncomfortable has to revolve around putting the 'Horns in a situation where they need to take advantage of opportunities down the field to exploit your defense. That's the one area that Colt McCoy and Greg Davis remain vulnerable, and it's where I'd center my strategy if I were A&M. Make Davis beat you with a gameplan that requires vertical passing plays. Make McCoy execute it. Try your best to take away everything else.
In Part 3 of the preview series, we'll look at what Texas needs to do to secure a victory.