State of the Hogs: Top 10 (A&M)

Football is the ultimate team game, but Texas A&M has the ultimate individual in Johnny Manziel. How do the Hogs slow him down? Lightning is in the forecast. Here's the top 10 keys for this week's Arkansas game with A&M.

Upsets do happen in college football. They happen in the Arkansas-Texas A&M series. No. 2 Texas A&M lost 31-6 to No. 18 Arkansas on Dec. 6, 1975 in Little Rock.

It's still one of the great victories in Arkansas history. It knocked the Aggies out of the national championship game.

No one saw it coming, either. For sure, no one saw little Teddy Barnes coming up big in the back of the end zone against a pair of future NFL greats.

How it happened should give hope to the Hogs as they entertain No. 9 Texas A&M at 6 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Upsets happen generally because of turnovers and mistakes by the favorite. A&M had six turnovers that day, including five lost fumbles. The Hogs went 41, 55, 18 and 4 yards for their offensive points and recovered a fumble in the end zone for another touchdown.

Arkansas won with defense that day. The Hogs held the Aggies' vaunted wishbone to just nine first downs and 134 yards on 59 rushes. The visitors completed just one of seven passes for 15 yards. During the guts of the game, A&M made no first downs and had minus 6 yards in 10 possessions.

This isn't 1975 and that A&M offense didn't have Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Perhaps the most exciting quarterback in college football over the last decade, Manziel deserves the nickname Johnny Football. He deserves to be called Houdini. It's pure magic when Manziel has the ball.

If form holds, Manziel should have a big day against an Arkansas defense that had trouble with the pass last week against Rutgers. Manziel torched some of the same defenders for big play after big play last year in College Station. The Aggies finished with 719 yards, 498 passing.

Some have hoped that the weather forecast – 90 percent chance of rain at kickoff time – could hinder Manziel. It stormed last year in College Station, in case anyone forgot.

How do you defend Manziel? Typically, no one has dared blitz him. That exposes the secondary to his wonderful ability to scramble. No, most would prefer to defend with numbers and try to keep him in the pocket. But he's proven to be more accurate and efficient than last year.

Taver Johnson, who coaches the UA cornerbacks, said he didn't need to tell any of the new defensive staffers about Manziel's star quality. And, he didn't pull out the tapes from last year's games.

"They all knew about him," Johnson said. "You can watch one tape of any of his games from this year. That was enough for them. But to be honest, he's better than what you see on tape. In person, he's something else. He does things few have ever seen with their own eyes."

It's a nightmare for anyone coaching in the secondary. Manziel will make whatever you do wrong.

"If you are coaching in the back end, it's a challenge every week in college football," Johnson said. "But nothing is like playing him.

"What you try to do is minimize his big plays. That's a successful day against Manziel, if you limited the long plays."

The scramble plays can be incredibly tough on the back end of the defense.

"What we tell our guys, stay with their man no matter what," Johnson said. "That's corners, safeties and linebackers. Whether you are in zone or man, you have to stay in coverage. He can hurt you running, but the really big plays seem to happen when you leave your man because that's what he's looking for when he takes off out of the pocket."

With that in mind, we'll launch into the keys to victory for this week's ultimate challenge of stopping Johnny Football.

1, POUNCE – The Aggies don't always play perfect. When they make a mistake, the Hogs must pounce on it. They have to force some mistakes with more violent play, something defensive coordinator Chris Ash mentioned two weeks ago. They must accept all gifts. If Manziel makes an errant throw, a receiver deflects a pass or there is any chance at an interception, the Hogs must win the ball. The Hogs did not make enough of those plays last week at Rutgers when the rush bothered quarterback Gary Nova. The Hogs have to pounce with their defensive line, the best group on the team. Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Robert Thomas, Byran Jones and Darius Philon must have big games. They have to finish the deal when they get close to Manziel. A&M's offense is geared to expose safeties and linebackers in space. Jarrett Lake, Braylon Mitchell, Martrell Spaight, Otha Peters, Eric Bennett, Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines have to finish tackles. Last year in College Station many of those same players came up grasping for air in space against the Aggie runners and receivers. And, that doesn't say what happened against Manziel.

2, TRAVEL IN NUMBERS – Johnny Manziel usually beats the first defender, so there better be help on the way. Ash said the Hogs must travel in numbers. They've got to keep coming because Manziel escapes when most quarterbacks don't. As Ash said this week, "Gary Nova didn't escape the pressure. Manziel is not going to have that problem." Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said, "It's not the plays as how they are drawn up that get you. It's his ad libs. He buys time, sometimes 10 or 15 seconds. You can be chasing him for a long time and then he makes a play. That is tough. We just have to keep coming. We have to get multiple players to the ball." And the Hogs must rotate their defensive linemen throughout the game. That's a strength so the Hogs are built for such a challenge. Speaking of numbers, the Hogs have to cut the Aggie offensive numbers down. No, they aren't going to reduce them to nothing, but it can't be 716.

3, PLAY CLEAN – That's in limit penalties. The Aggies are too good to help. In some ways, the Hogs have not lived up to that through four games. They were hampered by big penalties in both the Samford and Rutgers games. Head coach Bret Bielema takes pride in producing a squad that is among the nation's least penalized. That's certainly not where the Hogs are now. There has been a rash of major penalties, including 15-yarders on defense for late hits and face mask fouls. Cornerback Tevin Mitchel leads the team. Jarrett Lake joined the penalty party last week late in the first half to help the Scarlet Knights on a touchdown drive. Ash said, "We can live with some penalties that are of the aggressive nature, but not face masks. Not late hits. That's what we try to coach out of them. We have things as far as discipline for those penalties." Bielema was more to the point when he said there is a point that playing time will disappear for repeat offenders. Johnson said, "We've put on the board how many yards we've given them. It can be startling when they see the number of easy yards, just gifts. It's a big number so far this season."

4, SPECIAL TEAMS – It's been a mixed bag with special teams so far this season. Rutgers hit two long punt returns, including one for a touchdown. Both ruby punter Sam Irwin-Hill and long bomber Zach Hocker gave up returns last week when coverage failed to maintain containment at the catch. The Hogs did hit a fake punt, block a field goal and make a field goal against Rutgers. The Hogs will need a big day in special teams to negate some of the issues with the A&M offense. Certainly, the Aggies need no help getting on the scoreboard with Manziel.

5, CONTROL THE LINE – The Arkansas offensive line didn't win the line of scrimmage last week. The Hogs made just 101 yards rushing against the Scarlet Knights. Yes, the Hogs were often outnumbered in the box and didn't take advantage of the pass enough. But line coach Sam Pittman said the Hogs did not play downhill and had too many breakdowns up front. He said, "When we did block them, it was on our side of the line of scrimmage." The Hogs did not win the edge with their tight end blocking after dominating with the toss sweep in the first three weeks. A&M's front has not shown to be a strength through it's early games, but there is talent there. Can the Hogs scheme the edge and win on the outside with Alex Collins?

6, BALL CONTROL – There are two ways to stop Manziel. One, if storms materialize, a lightning strike might halt the game. Otherwise, the best way to slow Johnny Football is to play keep away. The Hogs want to control the ball and the clock. If the Hogs can find their running game again, that might be the best weapon in the game. The goal is to shorten the game, take advantage of turnovers and run that clock.

7, ACCURACY – Quarterback AJ Derby – and he's the man unless Brandon Allen has a miracle recovery of his injured shoulder – has to find a little more accuracy than what was displayed last week and his receivers have to help him a little more. There were a few throws that weren't perfect, but they were certainly catchable. He didn't get much help from his receivers. But by and large, Derby has to throw better down the field. The Hog will have to score more than 24 points to beat A&M and they emptied their bag of tricks last week in Piscataway. They may not hit a halfback pass or a fake punt this week.

8, HOME FIELD – A&M has not been on the road through four games. The Hogs have to take advantage of a big home crowd. They saw what a road game can be like last week at Rutgers. Once momentum switched sides at High Point Solutions Stadium, the Hogs had a hard time reclaiming it. They have to use that to their advantage this week.

9, WIDE RECEIVER PLAY – It's hard to take your eyes off of the quarterback, but it might be interesting to watch how Arkansas plays A&M sophomore Mike Evans, a 6-5, 225-pound beast. It's a mismatch no matter where he goes and Manziel has figured out a safe pass is throwing it up for grabs in his direction. Can the Arkansas safeties make that a bad move? No one has yet. D'Arthur Cowan returns for Arkansas this week after Keon Hatcher fought back last week. The Hogs have a few more wide receivers who can make a play. Does that take some of the pressure off of Javontee Herndon?

10, SWANSON AND SMALL – Alex Collins has developed into the bell cow of the Arkansas offense. Can he get some help from Travis Swanson and Keiro Small? The Rutgers defense was set to stop the Arkansas sweeps with Swanson and Small leading the way. Does the sweep return this week and can Swanson and Small pop Collins for some big plays? Swanson and Small are the two most experienced players for the Arkansas offense. They have to have big days blocking if the Hogs are going to keep up with Manziel on the scoreboard. Swanson's job starts with nose guard Kirby Ennis, a 6-4, 310-pound senior. Small will match blows with Donnie Baggs, A&M's 6-1, 230-pound senior middle linebacker. The inexperience in the Aggie defense is at weak linebacker where sophomore Julien Obioha is the lone underclassman.

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