16th-ranked Texas A&M romped all over a sunny, and snow-free, Scott Field to claim their 38-13 victory over #17 Mississippi State. The Aggies left 7-2, 4-2 SEC and headed for a meeting with #1 Alabama next weekend.
The Bulldogs are also 7-2, but after consecutive and lop-sided losses to the Crimson Tide and A&M they are 3-2 in league play. For a second-straight weekend State trailed 24-0 at halftime and 31-0 in a third quarter.
“They just out-played us,” said CB Johnthan Banks. “They executed very well, and we didn’t.”
‘Very well’ was understating things. Led, or maybe more accurately inspired, by the explosive play of quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Aggies scored on their first four possessions and five of the first six, with the lone exception a blocked field goal to end The Opening half. A&M didn’t have to put a punter on the field until 9:27 of the third period and that would be his only appearance all afternoon.
The obvious question for Coach Dan Mullen was…was a team still talking of Western Division contention that emotionally flat after last week’s first loss? “Obviously I guess we must’ve,” Mullen said. “We performed so poorly, that's 100 percent my fault. In every aspect of it I did not have them ready to go, and I’ll make sure we do a much better job of that this week.”
There aren’t many areas the Bulldogs could have played much more poorly. The statistical imbalance was as bad or worse than the scoreboard, with the Aggies rolling up 693 yards. That’s the most a State defense has ever allowed any SEC opponent, and wasn’t far off the 1969 record set by Houston of 736 yards.
Not surprisingly Manziel was the star, rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns on his 21 tries. Whether called carries, read keepers, or simple scrambles, the freshman left Bulldog defenders repeatedly grabbing at air…if they even got that close. And when Manziel did throw the results were even worse. He completed 30 of 36 throws for 311 yards, one more yard than the entire Bulldog offense mustered.
“Yeah, he’s a great player,” said LB Cam Lawrence. “He’s slippery, it’s hard to contain a guy like that. At times I thought we did a good job of containing him but you let him get out one time and it can be trouble.” Big trouble, such as in the second quarter when Manziel saw nobody open on 3rd-and-10. He also saw that the only three MSU linemen were bottled-up inside and everyone else had dropped deep leaving no contain whatsoever at either end.
Manziel chose the right one, scampering that way before cutting back and picking the perfect angle towards the end zone 37 yards away, leaving Dogs flailing and jaws dropping. His touchdown at 11:51 of the period made it a 21-0 difference and for all practical purposes a decided game. Manziel would also put up the day’s final points on an eight-yard touchdown at 5:59 of the fourth quarter. But what stung State as much as the points was how easy he made it all look against the seemingly-bogged Bulldogs.
“That kid, he’s a football player,” said Banks. “He did a great job managing the offense, he executed very well. And we played poorly. They got the job done.”
So did the rest of the Aggie offense. At times receiver Ryan Swope was just as elusive as his quarterback, making nine catches into 121 yards and abusing cornerbacks and safeties equally. Mike Evans also had nine grabs, for 97 yards. More than a few of these receptions were short tosses turned into 10-, 20- or more yard gains with further embarrassing ease. Meanwhile Ben Malena rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown on 17 rushes.
Of course State expected A&M to put up points and make plays. What left the home crowd first shocked and then frustrated was offensive futility. The Bulldogs’ first three series all lasted five plays for a net of 39 yards and no points. A reliance on the run, with two-thirds of State plays in the first half, wasn’t surprising given the matchup.
The results were, with just 58 ground yards by halftime and 98 for the game. “I think we just started slow,” QB Tyler Russell said. “We had a good gameplan, we had a really good week of practice. And it just comes down to execution, we didn’t execute when we needed to execute.”
Execution was the post-game State theme by players and coach alike. Certainly A&M’s fast start left the Dogs nearly for dead. They needed ten efficient snaps to take the 7-0 lead (the Aggies have scored first in every ’12 game so far), the big play when Mike Evans slipped S Nickoe Whitley for a 24-yard gain on third down. Malena finished that drive with a one-yard dive at 9:16. The second scoring series started with a 33-yard dash by Thomas Johnson after a missed backfield tackle on his swing-out catch.
On 3rd-and-11 at State’s 22 Christine Michael turned a straight handoff into a untouched touchdown dash through left guard at 3:11. The backbreaker was that third series though, as Malena negated a holding call with his 13-yard rush to start the surge. A facemask by DE Denico Autry accelerated Aggie progress and set up Manziel’s highlight-tape tote.
And according to Lawrence, “They did exactly what we were expecting, they came out with the tempo. But really I don’t think that’s what hurt us. It just comes down to execution. We had guys in the right place (and) several missed tackles. That’s something that has been reoccurring and we have to get fixed. We will get it fixed.”
State could have at least eaten into the deficit before halftime after WR Jameon Lewis’ 39-yard kickoff return. If not for running into his own downfield blocker backup QB Dak Prescott would have scored; he had to settle for a 15-yard carry. Reaching the 11 with fourth down, Russell had to unload, too high, for anyone in the end zone.
“They brought a blitz, the clock was running down and I didn’t have time to re-direct the protection,” said Russell. “I had to get it out quick and couldn’t find anybody.” The Aggies added a 24-yard field goal in the half and had another blocked by DT Josh Boyd. This was after a 82-second drive of 75 yards which only emphasized State’s offensive failures.
A&M made sure there would be no second-half rally by scoring 2:26 into the third period. Manziel ran for 19 and 23 yards en route with Michael doing the honors for the 31-0 lead. The Bulldogs had adjusted their approach for the half with Russell throwing earlier and shorter, letting his wideouts make their own moves. It did produce points at last with WR Chad Bumphis scoring on a 14-yard catch.
Only a Manziel fumble at the other goal line, which held up under review, kept it 31-7 into the fourth quarter. Mississippi State did score once more as Russell rushed it in from four yards out, having taken several wicked hits during the drive. But he also threw an interception, having again been blitzed into a third-down unload. Twice Russell limped back to the State sideline.
“I’m fine,” he said. Russell was 19-of-30 for 212 yards, the touchdown and an interception. The three senior starting receivers had 13 of those catches for 64 (Arceto Clark), 60 (Chris Smith) and 50 (Bumphis) yards. But the ground game sputtered against all expectations with LaDarius Perkins limited to 42 yards on 13 runs.
Mullen said there was no one obvious factor to the slow offensive start and inefficient afternoon. “There’s a lot of everything, a lot of everything that didn’t get us into rhythm. And it wasn't one position, it wasn't one play, it wasn't one situation. It's just overall really sloppy.”
Perkins agreed about the sloppy evaluation. He even thought that, overall, the Bulldogs were motivated for a November home game critical to their post-season goals. “Coach Mullen had stressed to us the whole week it was a big game for us. Everybody knew it was a big game. But like I said, it came down to execution,” Perkins said.
“I feel like we didn’t stay focused like we should have. We have to make sure we keep executing. Coaches are calling good plays, we just have to make sure we’re execute. Everybody has to do their job right.”
That job matters more now than whatever State may or may not be ranked when Sunday’s polls are released. B.C.S. hopes fanned by a top-twenty status even after the Alabama loss are done of course. “But we’re 7-2 right now, the season is not over,” said Lawrence, looking to the remaining Division dates at LSU, with Arkansas, and at Ole Miss.
“But this is SEC ball, it’s a dog-fight and we know what to expect.”