Aggies and Crimson Tide stand toe-to-toe in Texas-sized slugfest

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Photo: Alabama Crimson Tide offensive linesman Arie Kouandjio (77) blocks Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Kirby Ennis (90) during the second half at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Alabama Crimson Tide offensive linesman Arie Kouandjio (77) blocks Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Kirby Ennis (90) during the second half at Kyle Field. (Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports)

As I was sitting in the Kyle Field bleachers on a sunny Saturday afternoon, an instant classic broke out in the sweltering Texas heat. I extend my personal thanks to the good folks at CBS for setting this game up in such a healthy, sauna-like environment, one in which I joyfully sweated out a good 10 pounds.

In yet another testimony to the toughness of the average A&M football fan, the line to the bathroom stretched from mid-field to the goal line five minutes before halftime. It was even worse for the ladies, as their line stretched clear around the end zone to the other team’s 20. A&M officials encourage fans to bring a lot of water inside and then dare them to drink it.

As for what was taking place on the field, it was a football game that was extremely well-played and nearly perfectly orchestrated by two superlative college quarterbacks and their excellent coaching staffs, in miserable conditions made specifically for TV.

The Best in College Football

The two quarterbacks taking the snaps Saturday in College Station represented the best that college football has to offer, along with Oregon’s ‘Zone Read’ guy, Marcus Mariota, who was busy whipping up on Tennessee with his reads, arm and legs.

Mariota, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and the reigning Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel, are total packages within the respective schemes, philosophies and demands placed upon them by their football programs. You may consider each of the three effectively flawless and, by all means, unflappable, in any situation.

These three possess the intuitiveness, physical ability and leadership qualities to take each of their teams to the Promised Land. They are the three untouchables in today’s fast paced, need-for-speed college game. Teddy Bridgewater, Braxton Miller, Tajh Boyd and a handful of others, including several who also toil in the SEC, are definitely dandy competitors and hard to beat by any standards. I know of no college coach who would turn any of them away, but these three in particular are quintessential examples of ideal quarterbacking specimens.

I would compare AJ to Andrew Luck; Marcus to RGIII, and Johnny to a perfect blend of Barry Sanders and Joe Montana.

The coaching staffs here at Kyle on Saturday were represented by an instant Hall of Famer, Nick Saban, who has returned Alabama to its proper place in the college football world. Kevin Sumlin is the No. 1 challenger for the title, with possible objections heard loud and clear from good friends in my home state of Louisiana.

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The difference in Saban, Sumlin, and LSU’s Les Miles is that two of them have the unconditional support of their fan bases; whereas, the other cannot always claim this as a certainty. We can all agree the Mad Hatter’s game management acumen is certainly as entertaining as his results on the field, and he is usually on the smiling end of a big game when it’s all said and done. Nonetheless, with the tremendous strides of Mettenberger and the quick ascent of the Fightin’ Tigers in the early season polls, there’s a triangle that has formed here in the awesome SEC West that cannot be denied. Ole Miss may even make it a perfect square in the next two weeks.

I’m not naïve enough to believe the axis of excellence will continue once the Great Playmaker leaves College Station for much greener fields. Let’s be frank; Johnny will be drafted and may even go as the No. 1-overall choice, so let’s not be stupid, or allow our stupidity to become public, anyway. You don’t put a brand new saddle on a jackass, as my high school coach used to say, and Manziel is no jackass.

A Jacksonville team desperate for a star attraction to sell tickets cannot miss this opportunity in 2014. To say Johnny isn’t going pro is Australian for Naysayer, or, in other words, delusional. So let’s store this away for another day, most likely sometime in April. After all, this is college football at its all-time greatest. The first Game of the Century for the 2013 season may have exceeded all pre-game hype – and it only gets better from here.

And speaking of quarterbacks, the programs at LSU and Alabama don’t seem to be as dependent on theirs individually. They have illustrated a two to three-year plug-in system that works very well in their systems. Manziel, however, has made himself one of the most elite, indispensable players to play any position in modern times. He is the guy who could step into anyone’s offensive system and make it shine – even yours, Barry Switzer, should you decide to refrain from choking him first.

There is a lot of football left to be played. As Johnny said after the game, this was just one game; it wasn’t the Super Bowl. I agree wholeheartedly, although Johnny and his offense played as though it was their Super Bowl. Offensively we can assume all expectations for A&M were exceeded, yet we’d be dead wrong.

Getting Defensive

While Alabama gave up a ton of yards and several fourth-quarter touchdowns, they’d already provided enough of a cushion to ride out the Aggies’ storm. They did this by going to an unbalanced line in the second quarter on first down. When the Tide came out of the huddle for the second play, again unbalanced, A&M quickly called a time-out to get their front seven readjusted. It didn’t matter.

Alabama ran the tailback to their overloaded side time and time again, knocking the Aggies’ defensive linemen two yards off the line of scrimmage. The Aggies simply had no answer physically, and when you can’t go toe to toe, even in this high-octane era, you cannot win. When the dust finally settles, it usually settles in the trenches where it always has.

Were the Aggies just not in ‘game-shape’ on defense because of the suspensions? Yes, this is quite possible. The Ags up front were losing the ‘bench press challenge’ to the offensive linemen of Alabama on every play. The only way to get in game-shape is by playing in a few, just as the only way to get proficient at a particular aspect of the game for a skill player is by getting plenty of ‘game practice.’

Aggie fans certainly hope their defense isn’t this inferior to the offensive side of the ball, because if this is truly the case, without Johnny Heisman, this season could be much different. As it is, it’s very frustrating for any quarterback to sit on the sidelines and watch his defense on roller skates going backwards throughout the game.

What Johnny did in the fourth quarter after cooling his jets for so long was beyond awe-inspiring. He was a frenzied fanatic who appeared to be gasping for his final breath. But upon seeing the bright light above, the never-say-die Aggie QB fought with every fiber in his body to survive. If he was going to lose to the world champions, it was going to by a split decision – certainly not by a knockout.

The Dream Scheme

To put a bow on it, A&M runs every quarterback’s dream scheme. It’s beautiful, it really is. One would think a quarterback thought it up and then said, “Now watch what I can do!” Receive the snap five to six yards away from the fray, read your keys and deliver the football. Throw it on a line, with touch or on an arc. It’s all so automatic. All the throws we see from the Air Raid pocket have been thrown and completed hundreds of times in practice. Catch and throw. Catch and throw.

Mariota calls the Aggie offense “backyard” football that even he would love to run, but he’s too busy in Oregon perfecting other aspects of a complete offense. Simply put, the Air Raid offense is God’s gift to quarterbacks. Ask any quarterback from any era and see how many would also say they wish they’d played in this offense. You either catch the snap and throw, or you catch the snap and hand off. What could be easier? Nothing. But can it win championships in this decade?

Photo: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

The shotgun is much simpler than getting under the center, taking the snap and busting your butt to get back into the pocket, planting your feet, getting balanced, finding your bearings downfield amidst the defensive rush that tried to beat you back there, and delivering the football on time and with great accuracy to any part of the field.

This is hard work. It requires a tremendous amount of focus, practice time and proper technique. It’s something a lot of schools have decided is detrimental to the development of their quarterback and system. The shotgun formation has turned quarterbacks into baseball pitchers standing up there on a mound.

Sometimes this single ability, or lack thereof, is the deciding factor for a shotgun passer in his attempt to become a successful NFL quarterback. Many “catch and throw” guys simply aren’t capable of attaining the same effectiveness when converting to the traditional dropback used by the pros and by those of us who played in darker ages.

Wherefore art thou, Zone Read?

Another realization that surfaced during this Clash of the Titans is the Air Raid offense has no running game, per se. It must rely, instead, on true greatness and elusiveness at the running back position. It has plays drawn up in the playbook for running the ball, sure, but they’re successful more times than not as a result of the skills of the ball carrier rather than the accompanying blocking scheme. We saw this in A&M’s version Saturday against Alabama. There wasn’t much there.

Even when A&M went to the Pistol with two tights in goal line and short yardage situations, Alabama knew the zone read was coming and easily defended it. Jordan Jefferson of LSU can attest to this. There just isn’t much to draw from, and this is fine as long as you’re throwing for 450 yards and putting up 45 points per game from literally anywhere on the field.

Yet, this is exactly where Mariota and Oregon have the offensive edge in a championship-type game such as the one played Saturday. The Ducks, in addition to executing everything the Aggies run offensively, also run the Zone Read to perfection. Johnny Manziel has only seen it on TV.

It’s a killer running play similar to what the handoff read in the triple option was for a very familiar football team in the ’70s. It isolates one defender and makes him decide which potential ball carrier he is going to pursue, but in this case, the quarterback’s handoff read also determines the direction of the football. Unlike the Veer and the Wishbone that used only half the field, the Zone Read requires the defense to defend the entire football field. The running back may have the ball going one direction or the quarterback may have it going the other. Good luck on that. The Aggies don’t run the Zone Read, period.

Wide Receivers: to the left, to the left

Photo: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

A&M is also a wide receiver short on its left side. As we all know, the Aggies like to go vertical and see what develops. Early in the game when Johnny caught the snap from center and looked to his right with ‘Bama in its Cover 2, he kept finding Evans gaining separation on the cornerback defending him deep. Big plays were the result. When Johnny’s pre-snap reads took him to his left for the throw, there was no separation developing with his wide receiver. This is when the scrambling started, because it’s better to create while on the run rather than throw up a hope pass that could easily get picked. It’s truly a matter of six to eight inches that Johnny must see from 40 yards away; his mind must then quickly say, “yes” or “no.”

Without equal breakaway ability on both sides of the ball, the offense suffered. Defensively for Alabama, their coaches changed personnel when A&M had a deep-ball threat in Evans on its left side. This was successful for the second and third quarters. Because of the lack of a deep threat on the other side, the Aggies resorted to short stop routes by the wide receiver. Then they successfully slipped their inside receiver behind the shallow-playing cornerback on deep corner routes, beating the safety to the pylon.

Aggie receivers know that Johnny is going to throw the long ball as deep as is necessary and they’re not going to out-run his arm. Problems occur when they haven’t beaten their man in a timely manner, and for the middle two quarters they were indeed covered up.

Final thoughts

No running game, a defense that’s not in game shape and no break-away wide receiver threat on the quarterback’s left side were the reasons A&M didn’t take this ball game. A kickoff that sailed out of bounds when the Aggies had regained the momentum was no help either. Perhaps an on-side kick would have been in order here. And the pick in the end zone? You guessed it. A busted route by a receiver who went straight upfield instead of fading wide to the sideline. Then there was the non-call of pass interference on the Alabama pick-six the Tide eventually would desperately need.

Unfortunately, the long conference losing streak was extended for yet another year inside Kyle. Not since 1998 have the Aggies gone undefeated at home in conference play. (This was also the sixth straight loss against Top 10 opponents in matchups scheduled within the first three games of a season, and the eighth of 10 overall.) The Aggies held and quickly lost another double-digit lead at home, just as they did last season against SEC foes Florida and LSU. A&M has never won the division or an outright conference title with a single home conference loss since freshmen became eligible in 1972.

Even a highly experienced and much improved version of Johnny Football couldn’t break the cycle. In spite of the blistering heat, A&M’s balls-to-the-wall offense, and the fanatical, fantastic field general who was at its helm, the cream of the crop in the SEC still refuses to wilt in the friendly confines of Aggieland.