If you read my offensive analysis earlier today, then you know I was more pessimistic about the defensive performance than the offense. Granted, 18 points doesn't sound like a lot of points at first glance, and I still think A&M should be able win any game where they hold the opponent to that total. However, the defense could not get off the field and gave up long, sustained drives that soaked up the clock and kept the offense on the sidelines.
The Red Wolves took the opening kickoff and held onto the ball for the first 6:15 of the first quarter going 13 plays and 60 yards. Yes, they held ASU to a field goal, but that first drive set the tone for the contest defensively. The Aggie defense would give up yards and field position all night, but would stiffen up on the short field and hold the Red Wolves to a field goal. That happened on three occasions, but in the process ASU took a huge advantage in time of possession.
In the first quarter alone, ASU held the ball over 11 minutes to just under four minutes for the Aggie offense. As a result, the Aggies only started three full drives during the first half, and finished with a short two minute drive to end the frame. Granted, they scored touchdowns on half of those drives, and missed a short field goal on a third drive, but the big advantage that the offense had on the ASU defense in the first half was diminished because A&M's defense could not get many quick stops on the Red Wolves. Overall, ASU held a seven minute advantage in time of possession over the Aggies.
Of ASU's 10 offensive possessions that weren't shortened by intermission, only one was a quick three-and-out. Eight of those drives were six plays or longer covering 60, 53, 17, 40, 30, 47, 80, and 21 yards respectively. Before the game, I figured that it may take a series or two for Coach Kines and the defense to settle into a game plan and get some game legs before finding a way to stop their opponent. Well, it never happened.
Surprisingly, the Red Wolves stayed on the ground and really only did damage through the air on a couple of third down and long situations. They only finished with 160 yards in the air with the longest pass play of 19 yards.
The front seven (or front six) just couldn't slow down Reggie Arnold and quarterback Corey Leonard who combined for 231 yards on the ground and a 5.7 yard per carry average. Overall, ASU racked up 255 rushing yards to A&M's 133. That alone should be a huge red flag for Aggie fans. Even when he became obvious that the Red Wolves were intent on running the ball, A&M could not stop it.
More importantly, why couldn't they stop the run? Well, for one the staff utilized a lot of nickel packages with three down linemen, and the Aggies were severely exposed to the run in this package.
Even when they weren't blitzing, it appeared the linebackers did not keep their gap assignments and ASU's zone read just picked apart the open lanes. When the linebackers did blitz, 90% of the pressure came from the outside and the blitz wasn't disguised. Thus, ASU's Leonard simply stepped up in the pocket and ran up the middle where the Red Wolves had numbers and A&M had a middle linebacker and safety to defend the middle vacated by the blitzing backers. A&M seemed to do better in the traditional 4-3 alignment against the run, but you have to wonder if the Red Wolves would have tried picking apart the defensive secondary had A&M stuck with the 4-3 to limit the run game.
That's probably my biggest disappointment of the game. After getting beat handily with the run in the middle of the field, the staff continued with pressure from the outside and frequently utilizing a three-man DL front. At some point you have to look at the 250 yards rushing and the lopsided time of possession and figure that stopping the run is a top priority and roll the dice with ASU's passing game and see if the secondary can get the job done.
Going into the 2008 season, I expected there to be some issues at linebacker and that this unit would give up some yards and some points, but I never imagined the defense would give up 255 rushing yards to Arkansas State.
Defensive Line D+
A lot of ASU's success up the middle was a result of scheming and X's and O's, and not necessarily that the front line was physically dominated. I thought the defensive ends had a decent game, especially Michael Bennett who made several big, disruptive plays. For the few plays he was in the game, I liked the energy level and the ability of Matt Moss who assisted in a sack. In the middle, I felt Kellen Heard was too quiet and didn't perform as many had hoped. Lucas Patterson had a so-so game, but again those guys were outmanned on many of those plays up-the-middle. I do think Tony Eddie has a lot of potential and I expect he'll earn more-and-more playing time as the season progresses. He had a big play when he broke through the line and tipped away a critical screen pass that had touchdown written all over it.
We knew this unit would have challenges, but there were just too many times that the linebackers were not in position and lost their gap assignments. Also, the lack of overall speed was evident on several outside runs and QB scrambles where the backers just didn't have the raw speed to close on the ball carrier. Now, watching Von Miller fly through the backfield like a heat-seeking missile and level the quarterback was a thing of beauty, but the staff must disguise those blitzes and mix them up because ASU easily read most of those blitzes and audibled into a play that took advantage of the linebackers leaving the middle of the field. Overall, this is my biggest concern on the team along with the wide receivers on offense. You can't invent speed, and that's what they need.
Defensive Backs C-
The defensive backs weren't challenged much on Saturday. However, the Red Wolves did attempt 28 passes and completed just 15 for a 52% completion rate which from a defensive standpoint isn't too bad. In addition, ASU rarely tried a deep ball and kept most routes in the 10-15 yard range that are easier to complete. But, they did give up two critical third and fourth down completions. The defense could have put a quick end to that first 6:15 drive but the secondary gave up a 19 yard pass on third-and-six. Then, on the go-ahead touchdown drive, ASU converted a fourth-and-13 with a 15 yard completion in A&M territory. Then, two plays later they gave up a wide open 15 yarder in the end zone for the lead and ultimately the win.
With that said, I thought the secondary did have nice coverage on several plays, with Arkeith Brown in particular registering two pass breakups. Overall, I thought the secondary had several breakdowns, but in general showed much better coverage skills than in recent years. There's definitely room for improvement though.
Defensive Coaching D-
As I said earlier, I was disappointed that the staff continued to leave the middle open after ASU showed numerous times they could and would take advantage of that outside blitz and fill the middle for 7-8 yards a pop. A&M just didn't have the numbers to stop that play sequence. I was hoping that they would stick with the 4-3 that did slow down the running game at times, and force the ASU quarterback to beat you with his arm. This is also a broken record we've been playing for years, but the mechanics of tackling must improve. A&M simply gave up too many yards after contact to be satisfied with tackling.
OVERALL DEFENSIVE GRADE D
SPECIAL TEAMS D
At this level of college football, you can't miss field goals inside of 40 yards much less 30 yards. Who knows what would have happened had Bean hit those two field goals, but when your offense gets inside the 20 yard-line, three points should be automatic. I don't know what you do here, as you have a senior who beat out a true freshman during the fall. Do you possibly roll the dice with the fish? Well, not yet. I'd evaluate after the second game before I make any changes. The return units did a nice job. Bradley Stephens and Cyrus Gray gave A&M good field position all night, and Jordan Pugh had a solid night at punt return.
Hop's ASU defensive report card
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