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The Battalion

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

The Battalion

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

The Battalion

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A&M offensive line troubles persist in loss to Tennessee

Freshman+Mark+Nabou+Jr.+%2854%29+waits+for+the+snap+during+Texas+A%26amp%3BMs+football+game+against+ULM+at+Kyle+Field+on+Saturday%2C+Sept.+16%2C+2023.
Photo by Ani Tummalapalli/ The Battalion

Freshman Mark Nabou Jr. (54) waits for the snap during Texas A&M’s football game against ULM at Kyle Field on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Football coaches and players everywhere will tell you that the game of football is won and lost in the trenches, specifically on the offensive line.

A team can’t be successful without an effective offensive line to ward off opposing defenses and give the quarterback time to make plays. Forget how many playmakers a roster may feature, it won’t matter without the work of the big boys up front.

The Texas A&M football team did more than talk about this concept, it displayed it firsthand in a 20-13 loss at Tennessee on Saturday, Oct. 14.

The Aggies’ offensive line couldn’t keep up with the Volunteers’ defensive pressure in a rowdy Neyland Stadium. Sophomore quarterback Max Johnson was often forced to make uncomfortable throws while taking a beating behind the line of scrimmage. He completed 16 of 34 passes for 223 yards with two interceptions, both in critical moments in the fourth quarter.

The signal caller’s offensive line didn’t do him any favors, as he was pressured on 25 of 39 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus and Carter Karels of 247Sports. That 64.1% clip is the highest in an A&M game since 2014. This season, Johnson has been pressured on 50.7% of dropbacks, the highest rate in the FBS.

Johnson was hurried 11 times and sacked twice for a loss of 16 yards en route to a 54-yard performance by the Aggies’ rushing attack. For the second week in a row, A&M averaged a mere 1.9 yards per carry with sophomore Le’Veon Moss and freshman Rueben Owens in the backfield.

“We played two great [defensive] fronts,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “They’ve got front guys that are going to get drafted and play [in the NFL]. It was a good game, and we had opportunities to make some plays … You stay up and you win the battles and you’re not behind the eight ball.”

In spite of playing a defense that led the nation in sacks per game, A&M hurt its cause with its fair share of self-inflicted wounds. Sophomore center Bryce Foster had at least five bad snaps that forced Johnson to react quickly to keep the ball from sailing behind him.

Those miscues were crucial, adding to the pressure Johnson was already feeling from Tennessee’s defensive line. Sure, it may have been windy, but the number of poor snaps was striking, particularly from a center who took charge of the offensive line as a freshman in 2021.

“We had some balls that were low and took us off,” Fisher said. “We just coached [Foster] up. Usually, we don’t get those from him. It was rare, that was something we hadn’t been experiencing, so we fixed it. If they continue, then we would have to [make a change at the position].”

The bloopers didn’t stop there. The Aggies led the Volunteers 10-7 halfway through the second quarter and sought to grow their lead with a 4th-and-1 try at the Tennessee 37-yard line. Fisher received criticism in last week’s loss to Alabama for opting to punt on 4th-and-1 in Crimson Tide territory, but the play call in Saturday’s instance was left a mystery.

Johnson backtracked after receiving the snap, but lost his footing and fell to the ground after tripping over his own offensive lineman. The sequence was almost comedic given the unit’s struggles up to that point.

“Whoa!” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said during the broadcast. “What are you doing?”

The offensive line only experienced one penalty, a holding call on freshman Chase Bisontis, who earned significant praise from Fisher in the offseason to earn a starting spot. Bisontis is the only true freshman on the line, although even its most experienced members, like senior Layden Robinson, sophomore Trey Zuhn III and Foster, played like it was their first taste of SEC football.

It’s no secret that the offensive line struggled immensely in 2022, but fans assured themselves that a combination of experience and lack of injuries could take the unit to new heights this season. However, the unit has allowed at least two sacks in all but two games, headlined by five from Alabama in a 26-20 defeat.

The responsibility is now on offensive line coach Steve Addazio to get the unit right for the second half of the conference slate. Matchups with Ole Miss and LSU remain, and the offensive line’s success is paramount to A&M maintaining pace with two of the nation’s most high-powered offenses.

Offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino has shown a desire to get the offense’s stop players involved in the action often, particularly through deep passes. That can’t happen, though, if the offensive line doesn’t pull its own weight by giving Johnson enough time to make those throws.

A&M’s offense has been kept in games thanks to the spectacular play of its defense, holding opponents to less than 20 points per game. But, injuries to junior linebacker Edgerrin Cooper, sophomore defensive back Bryce Anderson and sophomore defensive lineman Walter Nolen could add more pressure on the offense moving forward.

There’s much work to be done in the next two weeks as the Aggies take a sorely-needed bye week following back-to-back losses. It will allow not only additional practice time but time for banged-up players to rest and recover.

After the past two weeks, the offensive line could use that time off more than anyone.

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About the Contributor
Luke White
Luke White, Sports Editor
Luke White is a senior telecommunication media studies major and sport management minor from Round Rock, Texas. He has served as head sports editor since May 2023.
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