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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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7 takeaways from A&M’s opener against Kent State

On+Saturday%2C+Sept.+4+the+Texas+A%26amp%3BM+football+team+opened+their+2021+season+against+Kent+State.+Sports+writer+Ryan+Faulkner+highlights+notable+moments+from+the+game.%26%23160%3B
Photo by Abbey Santoro

On Saturday, Sept. 4 the Texas A&M football team opened their 2021 season against Kent State. Sports writer Ryan Faulkner highlights notable moments from the game. 

Texas A&M football kicked off its fall campaign against the Kent State Golden Flashes Saturday, Sept. 4, taking a slow start before ultimately upending the visiting team, 41-10. 

Here’s what we learned:

Thousands down, thousands to go

Going into the opener, junior running back Isaiah Spiller needed just 18 rushing yards to reach his 2,000 rushing career mark. After averaging 103.6 yards per game last year, it was no surprise when he easily surpassed the number in the first quarter. A 19-yard breakaway rush up the middle pushed Spiller over the mark, making him the 21st Aggie in school history to hit 2,000 rushing yards. The Spring native ended the night with 137 total yards, averaging 6.6 on the rush and 12 per pass received. As one of the offensive figureheads on the maroon and white roster, Spiller’s record-breaking showing may act as a premonition of things to come across the remainder of the season. 

A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said Spiller’s performance makes him one to watch this season and throughout the rest of his career.

“He’s going to get his touches,” Fisher said. “Spiller was outstanding tonight. He’s really emerged into a leader in how he practices and affects guys in a great way. He’s as good as any guy we have on this whole team.”

King’s highs and lows

Redshirt freshman Haynes King made his first collegiate start as quarterback against the Golden Flashes, taking over for four-year starter Kellen Mond. With thousands anxiously waiting to judge his performance, many entered the game wondering if King could act as a suitable answer for his predecessor. Though his speed and throwing power benefitted the Aggies, the quarterback struggled to maintain consistency in the passing game. King threw for 292 yards, going 21-33 on attempts and completions, but also threw three interceptions. Backup Zach Calzada made an appearance in the fourth quarter, rushing for 12 yards before going 0-1 and throwing an interception on A&M’s final offensive play of the game. With four combined turnovers between the two players, plus a below-average completion rate from King, his future success is still up in the air.

Even when making mistakes, Fisher said he is pleased with King’s performance because of his ability to “bounce back.” Based on these comments, a swap in favor of Calzada at the helm seems unlikely going forward.

“[King] overcame adversity,” Fisher said. “He made plays when he had to. [He was] outstanding on third downs. He scored his touchdown, and he overcame things. That’s how [I] measure players — when things ain’t all perfect. Your first time out there, you can gain a lot of doubt in yourself. He didn’t. There’s a lot of potential to be right there.”

Explosions on offense

One of the most impressive aspects of A&M’s roster is its offensive firepower. Against Kent State, three players — Spiller, sophomore running back Devon Achane and junior wide receiver Ainias Smith — recorded over 100 yards on offense. This boosted the team to a total of 595 yards between runs and passes, clocking in at nearly twice the visiting team’s 336. Four other players received multiple touches, showing just how deep the maroon and white’s rushing and receiving corps are. If the Aggies can continue giving big playing time to its core frontrunners while divvying up the fodder for the others, they are on track to become one of college football’s offensive powerhouses this season. 

Though disappointed he didn’t add any touchdowns to his resume Saturday, Spiller said fans have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to A&M’s potential to score in big ways.

“We’re just continuing what we started,” Spiller said. “[Our offense can be] very explosive. We can do it all. I can’t wait for next week.”

Protecting against the run

A&M’s defense was highly praised in 2020 for its effectiveness against the rush, holding opponents to an average of 56 yards per game on the ground. Against an all-SEC schedule, only giving up an average of 3.3 yards per rush was an accomplishment. The maroon and white’s defense looked extremely different in Saturday’s season opener, giving up 95 rushing yards in the first half alone en route to Kent State’s final 226 total. The Aggies’s next opponent, the Colorado Buffaloes, rushed for 281 yards in its 35-7 victory over Northern Colorado. To combat this, the Aggies will need to make adjustments before they next take the field. To A&M’s credit, Kent State was 2020’s highest scorer in college football, averaging 49.8 points per game, so the maroon and white holding its opposition to 10 is certainly a positive.

Regardless of any pros or cons regarding the defense’s performance, senior defensive back Leon O’Neal said he is expecting his unit to perform more efficiently moving forward.

“This is the best defense in the country,” O’Neal said. “It is absolutely unacceptable how we handled [Kent State’s running game]. We’ve got to grow from it. We know what kind of defense this is. We have to do better.”

Maroon Goons 2.0

Once one of the most successful aspects of A&M’s entire roster, the 2021 offensive line debuted its new look Saturday night. Returning only two players from last season’s Joe Moore Award finalist line, much uncertainty surrounded the group and whether or not it could recreate the success of its forerunner. Though it allowed two sacks, the maroon and white’s offensive line had an overall fruitful showing. The Aggies’s running back rotation totaled 303 yards, largely thanks to the set-up provided from the athletes on the line. Combined with A&M’s 7.2 yards-per-rush average Saturday night, the new “Maroon Goons 2.0” replacements seem primed for great things.

Spiller said he is excited to see what the young group will accomplish in the coming matchups as it garners more experience in gametime situations.

“[The new offensive linemen] played great,” Spiller said. “We still have a lot of things to work on — we still have to get better. But they did their job tonight. I’m grateful for those guys, and I can’t wait to move forward with them.”

The 12th Man’s revival

Junior deep snapper Connor Choate suited up wearing No. 12 for the first time Saturday night, and though he saw no playing time, A&M’s “Aggie Spirit personified” was in full swing. After COVID-19 guidelines limited attendance to 25 percent capacity in 2020, Saturday’s matchup saw a packed Kyle Field for the first time in nearly two years, packing in 97,339 fans across three decks. The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band made its grand return for a halftime performance, and the Yell Leaders no longer signaled to mostly-empty seating. To heighten the aura, A&M’s iconic red, white and blue game saw its return, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. How A&M plans to use this home field advantage against powerhouses like Alabama or Ole Miss remains to be seen.

Even after experiencing the force of thousands of screaming Florida State Seminoles after winning them a national championship in 2013, Fisher said the 12th Man is an unmatched power in terms of passion, effectiveness and influence on the game itself.

“That was awesome, seeing the red, white and blue,” Fisher said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in a stadium. The noise was great, the fans were great. I’m glad we won for them.”

Waking up the world

Less than a week before the opener, O’Neal told The Battalion one of his biggest goals is to record “at least six or seven” interceptions this season. After snagging two out of the air from Kent State graduate quarterback Dustin Crum, O’Neal is well on his way. The first turnover, caught in the endzone in the second quarter and stopping Kent State’s closest attempt at a touchdown, undoubtedly fired up the crowd, but it was his second turnover that became his greatest accomplishment of the night. Caught in the red zone, O’Neal ran the intercepted ball back 85 yards for a pick-six, marking his first career touchdown with A&M. Paired with his four tackles, three of which were accomplished on his own, the Cypress native easily became one of the Aggies’s greatest difference-makers.

Fisher said he hopes O’Neal continues to perform this way for the remainder of the season, especially having watched the defensive back develop into his role as a leader on the team over the past few years.

“It’s big,” Fisher said. “That’s why you give mature players [playing time]. It’s amazing how good [seniors that stay until their fourth year] play. He deserved everything he’s getting. He’s understanding how to be a team player. He’s understanding how to lead. I’m very happy with him.”

Reunion of the greats

When it comes to A&M football, legends persist long after a player graduates. Former 12th Man Cullen Gillaspia, Class of 2018, made a grand entrance at Kyle Field this Saturday, running out of the tunnel and onto the turf just minutes before the game’s kickoff. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Class of 2015, wasn’t far behind, sending fans into an uproar when he announced his presence at the game via A&M football’s Twitter. With the visible commitment former players have to the program, it would not be surprising to see potential recruits consider A&M more heavily as a possible landing zone moving forward.

Equally committed to staying involved with the team for years to come, Spiller said there is something “special” about A&M which brings former players back every year.

“It just shows the Aggie Network,” Spiller said. “It’s a family — everybody looking out for everybody. Guys feel like they can come back because it’s a friendly environment.”

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