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Aggie Watch Week 3: Little Brother Averts Disaster

Well. While the Aggies have still yet to play a game deemed TV-worthy and therefore we have not had a chance to actually watch them play, the Gamecast of A&M's three-touchdown fourth quarter and last-ditch goal line stand to come from behind and beat mighty Florida International was thrilling. On the one hand, the Aggie showed some mettle in scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns to get the home victory. On the other hand--why in the world did they need three fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Florida International at Kyle Field? Contending teams often have to squeeze a couple of victories from the jaws of defeat (see Bama, just last year). But those teams also can usually pound Florida International and do so without needing a great performance from the home crowd.

The cold fact is this: FIU was supposed to be a buy-a-victory opponent for A&M and instead the Golden Panthers may have exposed some major issues. Apologists will point to A&M's statistical superiority: 400 total yards to FIU's 232 and 20 first downs to 13. But FIU did win the time of possession battle, and the more important issue is that turnovers count. The "if not for the four interceptions we'd have killed them" argument is tired and pointless; taking care of the football is part of the game and A&M couldn't do it. The Aggies are about to find out whether their preseason expectations were justified or they're headed for familiar territory; the good news is they have an off week to address their issues before starting conference play against Oklahoma State on September 30.

Offense: The structure of the story remains the same: the offense begins and ends with Jerrod Johnson, only this time he almost cost A&M the game. He threw four interceptions Saturday, including one third-quarter pick that FIU's Anthony Gaitor returned 54 yards for a pick six. Johnson's numbers aside from the turnovers were also uninspired: he was only 11 of 31 for 194 yards through the air. 

The interesting thing about Johnson's picks is the way they happened: on four straight possessions to start the third quarter. That unique factor lends itself to either optimism or pessimism, depending on how you look at it. The optimist's view would be that the fact that they were clustered together makes them an aberration and reflects that Johnson was simply over-thinking. His recovery in the fourth quarter that brought the team back from the brink shows Johnson is still the league's best quarterback and, even on an off day, will find a way to win.

OR: Johnson's inability to correct his mistakes until after throwing the football to guys in blue helmets four times in a row belies a disconcerting inability to make adjustments. In the end, he and his teammates simply out-athleted the Panthers and pulled out a win. They won't be able to do that in the Big XII, and Johnson may be prone to throw away a game or two once the real opponents start popping up on the schedule.

Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Johnson has been too good for too long to say with any credibility that one bad performance means he's suddenly a turnover machine. However, it would also be folly to turn a blind eye and just write FIU off as nothing: four picks in a row is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Johnson is a veteran and there's no reason to believe he won't overcome the issues that got to him this week before the Okie State game. If not, the Ags are in trouble.

Equally problematic was the offensive line's performance: the nimble Johnson was sacked six times, one of which forced a turnover on a fumble and led to FIU's first points on a first-quarter field goal. A&M did manage 206 yards rushing on 45 carries for a healthy 4.6 yards per carry average, so the line was clearly opening some holes. Still, the pass protection was no good and it will be difficult for Johnson to deal with his own issues if he doesn't have time to throw the ball.

Elsewhere on the offense: Jeff Fuller remained on the verge of breaking the Aggies' all-time touchdown receptions record. He did lead the team in receiving overall but didn't get into the endzone against FIU. The one touchdown pass went to Terrence McCoy, who later offered perhaps the most honest assessment of a poor performance against a non-BCS opponent we've ever seen. The other two touchdowns came on the ground, with the two-headed beast of Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray each running for a score. The rushing load was split less evenly between the pair this week, with Michael carrying 21 times for 132 yards while Gray made the most of his nine carries: he averaged 9.4 yards per opportunity and busted through for 40 yards on his game-winning touchdown run in the final minutes. Michael also put the ball on the ground a couple of times but A&M was fortunate enough to recover; all in all, the Ags fumbled the ball four times but Johnson's was the only one they lost.

Defense/Special Teams: The Texas A&M defense saved the day.

While the offense struggled, the defense did their job keeping the game close. The defense inherited a short field from the offense several times and still allowed just 13 points.  Until the game's final drive, the longest FIU moved the ball was 27 yards and the one TD drive was only 19 yards. More importantly, the defense responded under pressure. When Johnson gave the ball to FIU four straight times to start the half, the Aggie defense stiffened and allowed the Panthers only seven total points off those gifts.

The most consistent play came from the defensive line. They controlled the line of scrimmage, stopped the run and forced Panther QB Wes Carroll to hurry his throws. Carroll was limited to 14-of-34 for 177 yards passing. That was the fewest yards allowed through the air by the Aggies since UAB threw for just 74 yards last year. You may remember Carroll as the somewhat inept quarterback from Mississippi State, so draw what conclusions you will.

The defensive front was credited with 22 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a pass break-up, and a forced fumble. Tony Jerod-Eddie had six tackles and Eddie Brown and Lucas Patterson were crucial in disrupting several plays.

Inside linebackers Garrick Williams and Michael Hodges deserve a lot of credit for forced stops near the line of scrimmage. Williams led the team with 11 tackles and one tackle for a loss.  With A&M down 14 points in the final 12 minutes of the game, Williams was the leader of the defense that forced five consecutive punts and only 35 yards.

Von Miller sprained his right ankle in the first half against Stephen F. Austin, and although he has played in all three games, his participation and production has been limited.

Perhaps the one place where the news was entirely good for A&M was on special teams. This was a much cleaner performance by the Aggies on returns, and Randy Bullock nailed field goals from 23 and 39 yards in the second quarter. The worst thing that befell the special teams was a shanked punt at the end of the first half that had no impact on the game's outcome.

Update: As we finished putting this up, the Aggie website posted a condensed version of the FIU game. You can watch it here and it takes only about an hour. Warning: if you fail to mute it, you will hear the Aggie radio announcers. Not pretty.

Up Next: The Ags are off this week before starting conference play on ESPN's Thursday night game in Stillwater against Okie State. A&M gets to find out whether or not they're for real in front of a national TV audience.