- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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Texas A&M’s defense worked diligently throughout the early portion of its season to shed its 2013 reputation, one that lingered until the unit stepped on the field Aug. 28 at South Carolina and could prove it actually was a different group with a different attitude and a new outlook.
Until recently, the Aggies had performed admirably on that side of the ball, posting much more respectable numbers than they had a season ago. Things indeed looked different.
Then Saturday happened: Mississippi State ran over the Aggies to the tune of 48 points and 559 total yards, Texas A&M’s worst statistical defensive performance of the season.
"[We weren't] playing smart defense," linebacker Justin Bass said. "Just staying in your gap and having good eye control; it's as simple as that."
The question is, was Saturday and aberration or the beginning of a familiar trend?
Mississippi State is 5-0 for a reason. The Bulldogs, as Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin noted afterward, were efficient and had a solid game plan. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s ability to seamlessly run Dan Mullen’s spread-option offense -- with a dizzying array of read-option, designed quarterback draws and more -- is difficult for any defense to handle, and as much has been proven this season.
Add in running back Josh Robinson or the stable of other backs the Bulldogs have, as well as talented receivers and a big offensive line, and it becomes understandable why Mississippi State averages 541.8 offensive yards per game (12th in the nation).
However, the Aggies struggled in key areas Saturday that are points of emphasis for Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, namely third downs. The Aggies allowed Mississippi State to convert five of its first six third-down attempts, and that doesn’t include the first third down of the game, which was a holding penalty on cornerback De'Vante Harris that extended a Mississippi State drive that could have ended in a three-and-out. On the next play, Robinson broke free for a 49-yard run that led to an eventual touchdown.
The third-down struggles appear to be a blip on the radar for Texas A&M, as the Aggies have otherwise been successful in that area. Going into Saturday’s game, the Aggies allowed third-down conversions at a 33.7 percent clip, good for 39th nationally. And the Aggies started the second half defensively getting back-to-back third-down stops, but Texas A&M’s offense wasn’t able to capitalize with points either time, leaving the Aggies trailing 28-10. They didn’t allow a third-down conversion in the second half.
The biggest area of concern Saturday was one that was an absolute headache in 2013: run defense. The Aggies allowed a whopping 280 rushing yards to the Bulldogs. The reasons varied from missed tackles to poor angles taken in pursuit, or simply a matter of Mississippi State’s offensive line winning the battle up front.
It was the second consecutive week the Aggies gave up a healthy dose of rushing yards. The previous week, Texas A&M allowed 285 rushing yards to Arkansas. Even if a 51-yard fake punt against A&M’s special teams is taken out of the equation, the Aggies have allowed an average of 257 rushing yards per game in the last two weeks against SEC opponents.
That’s a far cry from 124.75 rushing yards per game allowed in the first four games of the season before the Aggies faced the Razorbacks.
On Saturday, it didn’t help that the Aggies also struggled to cover the Bulldogs in the passing game. Prescott attacked the Texas A&M secondary, going 20-of-26 for 268 yards. The Aggies struggled to defend Prescott’s back-shoulder fade passes, which ate up chunks of yardage time after time.
Despite the poor performance Saturday and an up-and-down showing against Arkansas, the Aggies still have been better overall statistically than in 2013 (it’s hard not to be), when they were last in the SEC and in the bottom 30 nationally in most major defensive categories. Their ability to finish strong against the Razorbacks and get key stops in the second half and overtime appeared to be a sign of progress.
Saturday against Mississippi State was a different story. With two highly ranked opponents lined up for the next two weeks (No. 3 Ole Miss and No. 7 Alabama), the Aggies will have to bounce back from their showing in Starkville if they want to prove they are capable of being an effective SEC defense.
"We have to really correct some stuff that we've been letting slide so far," Bass said. "It is a wake-up call."
If the Aggies plan to be a real contender in the SEC West moving forward, they have to be much better defensively than they were Saturday.
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