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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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Commentary: Aggies’ strength must lie in adaptive expertise

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Photo by Photo by Robert O’Brien

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher reacts after senior WR Ainias Smith (0) drops a pass during A&M’s game against Miami at Kyle Field on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

No. 24 Texas A&M took down the No. 13-ranked Miami Hurricanes in a 17-9 bout in College Station, but heading into the week, the expectations weren’t too high on how the Aggies would fair. Some people called the game “do or die,” “must win” or “the most important game of coach Jimbo Fisher’s A&M career.”

Hosting a top-15 team in the country, the Aggies needed to make a statement. The program seemed to be at a crossroads in its momentum. Sink or swim, you decide, but one week later, you will start your SEC schedule at AT&T Stadium against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

And to their credit, the Aggies showed resilience and a willingness to change. The team needed to make some drastic moves, and they did in all three phases of the game, showing a willingness to be flexible to keep the Aggies afloat.

Offense

The big story line of the game was the debut start for junior quarterback Max Johnson, arguably the biggest change of the day. The swap came after redshirt sophomore quarterback Haynes King continued to underwhelm in his starts against Sam Houston State and the loss to Appalachian State.

In a shocking move, that I didn’t expect to come until at least the Arkansas game, Johnson was announced to get the start. I didn’t think they had it in them, but I think it was a necessary move. I’ve been preaching since the spring about how I believed Johnson to be the rightful heir to the quarterback throne over King, and I think he made an important difference in the game.

The numbers won’t jump out at you, 10-for-20 passing for 140 yards and a touchdown, but his management of the game was crucial. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson averaged a low 6.3 yards of depth per target, but he had no turnover-worthy plays despite facing 13 defensive pressures, compared to King’s 16 combined across both games 1 and 2.

Fisher said after the game that there were some things King could have done in the game better than Johnson, and others Johnson could have done better than King. Both are true; you exchange the dynamism and big-play threat of King for the accuracy and decisiveness of Johnson, but even with a conservative game from Johnson, I think it was necessary and the big plays are yet to come.

With a narrow 19-7 victory, the margin of error was very small for the Aggies to find success. Miami’s defensive backs played very sticky coverage, not allowing much action downfield, and A&M was without two of its top-four wide receivers in freshmen Evan Stewart and Chris Marshall, both out for disciplinary reasons. There wasn’t much room for downfield production, making Johnson’s ability to manage the game crucial.

“I did have the ability a couple of times to throw some shots [downfield],” Johnson said. “The coverage that they were running didn’t allow for that to happen, so I ended up checking it down.”

With the assumption that A&M’s passing weapons will return and with softer secondaries ahead on the schedule — like a Week 4 matchup versus an Arkansas team that quietly allows the most passing yards per game in the nation, 352.7 — Johnson is likely due for positive regression in the passing attack with more shots down the field to come.

This brings up the second crucial change the Aggies made on offense: getting Devon Achane the ball in any way possible. With weapons off the field, the Aggies knew they would have to rely heavily on their key contributors, and Achane was fed the ball continuously.

Achane carried the ball a season-high 18 times while adding on a season-high four catches, for a season-high 130 scrimmage yards, and the Aggies needed every one of those. Achane and senior wide receiver Ainias Smith, who had four catches for 74 yards, accounted for 63% of the team’s touches.

This likely won’t fly in the future, A&M will need more production from its ancillary weapons, but in a pinch against a top-15 team, down multiple players, the ability to adapt and give the team’s best players the ball proved crucial.

 

Defense

The suspensions weren’t limited to the offense, however. Freshmen cornerbacks Denver Harris and Smoke Bouie, who combined for 103 snaps across the first two games, were suspended for the Miami game as well. Even further, early in the game, senior defensive backs Brian George and Demani Richardson were disqualified following separate targeting calls. 

Facing a talent deficit in the secondary, Jimbo Fisher and defensive coordinator DJ Durkin made important changes that made a difference in the game.

A&M blitzed Miami’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Van Dyke 11 times on 44 dropbacks, or 25% of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. For reference, this is not an exceptionally high rate as Miami blitzed Johnson on seven of his 25 dropbacks, or 28%. Despite this, the Aggies had only blitzed Sam Houston State’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Jordan Yates and Appalachian State’s redshirt senior quarterback Chase Brice nine times combined.

This helped to make life more difficult for Van Dyke, who looked shaky all game facing the rowdy Kyle Field environment, but it also showed Fisher’s faith in the defensive back unit. Cornerbacks junior Jaylon Jones and sophomore Tyreek Chappell held their own on the outside, allowing just six catches for 63 yards in coverage with two pass breakups on 14 targets.

With production from the pass rush and pass coverage improving, this defense only appears to be ascending. Now, the rush defense needs to be addressed.

 

Special teams

Many people will overlook special teams changes like the move from junior kicker Caden Davis to sophomore kicker Randy Bond. Davis was 1-for-3 on the season, so Fisher pulled the trigger on Bond, who nailed his one field goal attempt of the game. While easy to ignore, this shows that the coaching staff was willing to make any changes necessary to get the Aggies back on track.

At the Sept. 12 press conference following the team’s home loss to Appalachian State, Fisher said everything was on the table after a “wake-up call” versus the Mountaineers.

“It all depends on how you wake up and what you do the next day, what you do and how you respond to things,” Fisher said. “We’ll evaluate everything this week. We’ll evaluate every position this week.”

In potentially A&M’s most crucial game of the season, the team showed the ability to fight through adversity and a willingness to lock in and make changes if the team needs it. Confidence was low for Aggie fans, but now, a sense of confidence can be felt in the fact that this team will do what it takes to win.

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