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10 Sep 2012

One Foot Inbounds: Texas A&M's Best Imitation of Itself

by Matt Hinton

For Texas A&M, Saturday's season opener was all about celebrating the turning over of a new leaf: The first game of a new season, under a new head coach, in a new conference, against a new conference rival -- Florida, which A&M had faced in the regular season exactly once, 50 years ago. There was a new starting quarterback, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel; a new offense, the "Air Raid"; and a new sense of forward momentum after a solid decade of mostly stagnation and disappointment. Alas, in the second half against Florida, the 2012 Aggies picked up in the SEC right where they left off in the Big 12, with an all-too-familiar swoon in the second half.

A brief refresher is in order. If you'll recall, the 2011 Aggies kicked off with at least as much optimism as the current edition, and probably more. In fact, thanks to a virtually intact lineup from a team that had rallied to a share of the Big 12 South championship in 2010, they carried a top-10 ranking into the season. Then they proceeded to blow games in the most excruciating possible fashion: a series of fast starts and faster fades. Against Oklahoma State, A&M led 20-3 at the half, only to lose 30-29; a week later against Arkansas, a 35-17 lead at the half ended in a 42-38 defeat. Against Missouri: A&M leads 28-14 in the second quarter, loses 38-31 in overtime. Against Kansas State: A&M leads 31-21 with six minutes to play in the fourth, loses 53-50 in four overtimes. Against Texas: A&M leads 16-7 at the half, loses 27-25 on a Longhorn field goal as time expires. Coach Mike Sherman was sent to the guillotine within the week, a noble martyr to near-perfect mediocrity.

What makes that trend really excruciating, as opposed to merely disappointing, is that persistent failure of that variety also requires persistent success. There is considerable evidence that this team actually is -– or can be –- pretty good, if only they could curb the killer mistake or run a few more sprints at the end of practice or something. But there is no way to distinguish the beginning of potential being fulfilled from the beginning of another reenactment of Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown at the last second. On his first three possessions, Manziel certainly looked the real thing: Riding primarily on his untested arm and legs, A&M marched 66 yards on its first possession for a field goal, followed by two extended, efficient, rousing touchdown drives covering 81 and 79 yards, respectively, setting Florida on its heels with a 17-7 deficit and the raucous crowd at a fever pitch.

You know what's coming next. Texas A&M's second half possessions amounted to five punts, four three-and-outs, three first downs, and a turnover via fumble. Florida did just enough offensively to go ahead 20-17 and milk every last millisecond from the clock. The Aggies took it to the Gators with their best shot, gave a perennial SEC power the real what-for, and still left as just another 0-1 outfit trying to get over the hump. If the goal is to "compete" in its new digs, A&M has already arrived. But if "competing" means actually winning against the league's upper crust, the distance remains the same as it ever was.

TOE DRAGS

  • Penn State lost its starting kicker, Anthony Fera, to Texas in the mass exodus that followed the onset of NCAA sanctions just before the season, and paid for it dearly Saturday in a 17-16 loss at Virginia. In Fera's place, 19-year-old sophomore Sam Ficken missed four-of-five field goal attempts, including a 20-yard chip shot in the third quarter and a 42-yarder to win as time expired. Ficken also had an extra point blocked, supplying the margin that dropped the Nittany Lions to 0-2.
  • There is no rhyme or reason for Louisiana-Monroe's 34-31 upset at Arkansas, and the Razorbacks don't even have the premature exit of quarterback Tyler Wilson as an excuse. When Wilson left the game, the Razorbacks already led by two touchdowns, 21-7, and pushed that lead to 28-7 with a touchdown pass from backup Brandon Allen in the third quarter. No, it was the defense that subsequently allowed the WarHawks to score 21 consecutive points in the fourth to force overtime, and ultimately allowed ULM quarterback Kolton Browing to escape for the game-winning touchdown in the extra session. The win was the Sun Belt Conference's first ever over a top-10 opponent, and UL-Monroe's first ever against a ranked team, period, although Arkansas no longer bears the distinction as of Sunday morning.
  • Almost as shocking, Oregon State held big, bad Wisconsin -– owner of the Big Ten's highest scoring offense each of the last two years –- to 206 total yards and kept the Badgers off the scoreboard for more than 58 minutes in a 10-7 upset that overthrows all assumptions about the reigning Big Ten champs as conference frontrunners. The Beavers finished 2011 with the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12, but somehow held the most consistently dominant rushing attack in the nation to just 35 yards on 1.5 per carry, a line that's already cost offensive line coach Mike Markuson his job after just two games.
  • Oklahoma State looked like its old self in one regard Saturday night, racking up a staggering 636 total yards (436 passing) on an equally staggering 92 snaps at Arizona. But as well (and as quickly) as they moved the ball, these Cowboys are not nearly as good as their prolific predecessors at taking care of it: After finishing second nationally in turnover margin in 2011, OSU created zero turnovers against the Wildcats while committing four of them, three from the arm of true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt. Three of the giveaways either set up points or led to them directly, most notably on a 48-yard interception return by Jonathan McKnight that effectively put the game on ice. Now, shall we also discuss the Cowboys' 167 yards in penalties?
  • Alert the starlets: UCLA's once-moribund offense has now racked up well in excess of 600 total yards in each of its first two games, putting up the same caliber of numbers in Saturday's 36-30 upset over Nebraska that it did in the cupcake opener against Rice. More impressively: The output is almost evenly split between run and pass, with senior tailback Johnathan Franklin churning out back-to-back 200-yard games on the ground and redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley burning the Huskers for four touchdown passes with zero picks. We'll see how long it lasts, but in the meantime, all UCLA fans want to know is why Hundley spent all of 2011 on the bench.
  • Last year, Kansas State was the little engine that could: Eight of its ten wins came by a touchdown or less, including an early upset over Miami secured by a late goal-line stand in the final minute. The Wildcats were outgained on average by almost 60 yards per game, by more than 100 yards in conference games, and relied on an improbable diet of turnovers and timely kick returns to overcome their mediocrity on a down-to-down basis. But Saturday's 52-13 rout over the Hurricanes was nothing like that: This time, K-State's offense scored on five of its first six possessions, converted 9-of-11 third downs, outgained Miami by 230 yards, and didn't punt until the final minute of the game, with quarterback Collin Klein and most of the starters long gone. Defensively, the Wildcats forced three turnovers, sacked Stephen Morris five times and held the 'Canes out of the end zone until the final five minutes.
  • How bad is college football in the Rocky Mountain State? On the heels of Colorado State's win over Colorado on opening day, the Rams and Buffaloes were both upended Saturday by FCS teams, Colorado falling in a 30-28 nailbiter against Sacramento State, while Colorado State was roundly thumped in a 22-7 loss to North Dakota State.

OFI TOP 25

1. Alabama (2-0). Left Western Kentucky's carcass intact, out of consideration for the families.
2. LSU (2-0). Any night in which you finish with more sacks (four) than points allowed (three) is a good night, especially against an offense with as much potential as Washington's.
3. USC (2-0). A little wary of the closer-than-expected call against Syracuse. In its current state, the Trojan defense will be a liability in Pac-12 play.
4. Oregon (2-0). Ducks don't need much defense, but they'll miss senior tackle machine John Boyett, out for the year to a knee injury.
5. Ohio State (2-0). Braxton Miller is who we thought he was.
6. Florida State (2-0). Demoted a spot for (literally) only playing three quarters.
7. Michigan State (2-0). Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin bandwagons have already been derailed; Spartan hype can begin in earnest Saturday with a win over Notre Dame.
8. Georgia (2-0). Macho SEC pride may prevent them from admitting it, but Bulldog fans spent the first three quarters at Missouri with their stomachs in knots.
9. West Virginia (1-0). Mountaineers took the weekend off after backing out of a game at Florida State earlier this year, thus facilitating the Savannah State debacle. Feel like they should take some kind of hit for that.
10. Virginia Tech (2-0). Date with Austin Peay on four days' rest went much better than the last time the Hokies had a quick turnaround following a tight Labor Day game.
11. Oklahoma (2-0). Predictably easy win over Florida A&M doesn't do much to ease concerns after the rough opener at UTEP.
12. South Carolina (2-0). Crushed East Carolina even with the starting quarterback on the bench.
13. Clemson (2-0). Tigers balled hard in a blowout of Ball State.
14. Florida (2-0). For now, the comeback in College Station is as good a win as Gators have earned since Tim Tebow was en tow.
15. Arizona (2-0). I'll say it: I'm already starting to think of Matt Scott and Ka'Deem Carey the way I used to think of Pat White and Steve Slaton.
16. UCLA (2-0). Given the fates of Bruins' last half-dozen starting quarterbacks, Brett Hundley should be wheeled around campus packed in styrofoam padding.
17. Texas (2-0). Not much to say about wins over Wyoming and New Mexico, which is exactly how it should be when Texas plays Wyoming and New Mexico.
18. Tennessee (2-0). Season takes on an entirely different hue Saturday with a home win over Florida.
19. BYU (2-0). Season could be made or broken the next weeks on back-to-back trips to Utah and Boise State.
20. Kansas State (2-0). Blowout over Miami was of an entirely different stripe than last year's scrappy, skin-of-the-teeth routine.
21. Oregon State (1-0). Beavers, 3-9 last year, debut with the best win of the weekend.
22. Stanford (2-0). Reassuring thumping of Duke after an opening day scare from San Jose State.
23. Louisville (2-0). Doubtful we'll know much about the Cardinals before November, at the earliest.
24. Mississippi State (2-0). Bulldogs made Auburn's Kiehl Frazier look like the worst quarterback in the SEC, if not the country, though it may be too early to say that he isn't.
25. Notre Dame (2-0). Brian Kelly turning to much-maligned quarterback "Turnover" Tommy Rees to lead the game-winning drive over Purdue may endure as the greatest fan-trolling move of the year by any coach.

- - -

In: Arizona, UCLA, Kansas State, Oregon State, Mississippi State.
Out: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma State, North Carolina.

LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH

1. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia. UGA was down three defensive starters at Missouri due to suspension, but in the span of minutes in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs' reigning All-American effectively throttled Mizzou's offense all by himself. First: Georgia leads 27-20 midway through the fourth when Jones steps in front of an ill-advised throw by Missouri quarterback James Franklin, returning the pick to the goal line; the offense punches it in on the next play to extend the lead to 34-20. Next: Three plays into the Tigers' ensuing possession, Jones tracks Franklin down for his second sack of the night, knocking the ball loose in the process; a teammate pounces on the fumble at the Mizzou 5-yard-line, and two plays later Georgia leads 41-20. That's how it ended, presumably because Jarvis decided there was no need to run up the score.

2. Oregon State's Front Seven. It takes a team effort to get a coach fired after his second game, and the Beavers' effort against both Montee Ball and the Wisconsin offense as a whole was the best anyone has mounted against the Badgers in years. The individual play of the night, though, belongs to defensive end Dylan Wynn, who nullified a special teams gaffe that set Wisconsin up in good position by forcing a fumble on a sack of Badgers quarterback Danny O'Brien. Another Beaver recovered, thwarting the only scoring threat of the night prior to the Badgers' final, desperate drive of the game.

3. Jeff Baca, OG, UCLA. Baca, a fifth-year senior, has been a part of some truly dreadful offenses in his time, but suddenly finds himself as the grizzled old man in the center of a very good one: The Bruins' other o-line starters against Nebraska were a true freshman (Simon Goines), two redshirt freshmen (Jake Brendel and Torian White) and a sophomore (Xavier Su'a-Filo) in his first year back from a two-year Mormon mission. To pound out 344 yards rushing on the Cornhuskers, the senior in that lineup has to be pulling more than his own weight.

4. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State. Brown began his career as a blue-chip recruit in Miami, but failed to make a dent in the depth chart there and decided to transfer back to his home state after two fruitless years. Saturday, he led the charge against his old team in a 52-13 massacre, finishing with a team-high 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. For the game, Miami netted 55 yards rushing with a long gain of ten.

5. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M. The Aggies were eventually overwhelmed, but not before a spirited round of "Bull In the Ring" with Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel in the role of a very meek bull. Moore had in a hand in four separate sacks, two of them solo and two of them assists.

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 10 Sep 2012

8 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2012, 6:23pm by Rickford

Comments

1
by BaconAndWaffles :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 12:58pm

So Arizona has a mistake filled game against Toledo that they barely win, and then are the recipient of a mistake filled game by OK State and that equals top 15 in the country! Gotcha.

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 1:25pm

"The Wildcats were outgained on average by almost 60 yards per game, by more than 100 yards in conference games, and relied on an improbable diet of turnovers and timely kick returns to overcome their mediocrity on a down-to-down basis. But Saturday's 52-13 rout over the Hurricanes was nothing like that:"

It was and it wasn't. Before Miami completely gave up, K-State was up something like 31-6, but Miami had a small advantage in yards of offense.

4
by sundown (not verified) :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 2:50pm

Looking at the game chart http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/ncaa/gameflash/2012/09/08/4994... it doesn't look like Miami ever had more yards than Kansas State at any point. Even after they'd had the ball once to start the third and Kansas State hadn't yet, they still were trailing yards.

6
by Rickford (not verified) :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 3:49pm

Glad my mind wasn't playing tricks on me. As dominant as KSU was, I couldn't believe Miami could possibly have had more yards.

7
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 4:34pm

I might have peaked in just after the half, when KSU lead 24-6, but yardage was only like 215-185, but +2 on TOs.

8
by Rickford (not verified) :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 6:23pm

Oh. I read your first post like you were saying Miami was ahead in yards. It still reads that way to me.

3
by sundown (not verified) :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 2:15pm

For anybody who hasn't already heard about it, here's a really funny fact about Texas A&M. http://www.rantsports.com/lacesout/2012/09/06/texas-am-aggies-win-two-ad...

Over the summer, to make themselves more worthy of the SEC, they claimed two more national championships as well as some additional Big 12 titles. No joke, their stadium at the end of last year called attention to their one national title. Now, they're boasting three along with Big 12 "Championships" for years they lost the Big 12 title game.

5
by Travis :: Mon, 09/10/2012 - 3:09pm

And one of those additional Big 12 Championships is a year when they finished tied for first in their division but finished third on a tiebreaker, so they didn't even make the championship game. It's as if the Raiders called themselves the champions of the AFC last year.