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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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Hunting Gators: A&M defense versus Florida offense

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Photo by Photo by Robert O’Brien

Freshman DL Albert Regis (15) tackles Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart (2) during Texas A&M’s game against Ole Miss at Kyle Field on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022.

With the match on Saturday, Nov. 5, serving as the final straw for both Texas A&M and Florida’s football season, a key narrative defines the showdown between sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson and the Gator offense and defensive coordinator DJ Durkin and the Aggie defense. More importantly, this game will determine whether the challenges found within each team will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

For the Gator offense, the 2022 campaign has been full of ups and downs. Starting the season with a win against the then-No. 7 Utah Utes, Richardson went 17-for-24 in completions and threw for 168 yards, but he didn’t manage to complete a passing touchdown. All four scoring drives ended with run plays that brought the Gators into the endzone. Richardson and sophomore running back Montrell Johnson Jr. led the game with 11 attempts for 106 yards and three touchdowns and 12 attempts for 76 yards and one touchdown, respectively, showing Florida’s prowess with the ball on the ground.

“You’ve got to be physical up front,” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said regarding handling the Florida offense. “They’re good up front. They’re going to try and run the football, multiple formations, unbalanced formations, different motions, constant motions, getting them stopped, fitting the gaps. And then when you rush [Richardson], you’ve got to get him to throw, you’ve got to hit him when you can hit him legally and do those things.”

However, what appeared to be a superpower in Week 1 quickly exposed itself to be the Gators’ kryptonite. As the season progressed, teams such as then-No. 20 Kentucky and then-No. 11 Tennessee quickly discovered that once Florida’s run game was plugged, they struggled to find any flow on offense. The Gators’ first receiving touchdown didn’t arrive until Week 4 in their 38-33 loss against the Volunteers. Before that, in Florida’s Week 2 match against Kentucky, the Wildcats cut the Gators’ total rushing yards by over half of what they managed against the Utes. 

“Struggle is healthy,” Florida coach Billy Napier said. “I think most of the growth in my life … comes from adversity, comes from challenge. There’s failure along the way, and I think the key is that you capitalize off of those things. You learn your lesson from those things, and you adjust, you adapt, you grow and that’s what we’re doing.”

Since the early weeks of the season, Florida snagged a couple of wins against Eastern Washington and fellow SEC opponent Missouri before dropping its last two conference matches against LSU and No. 1 Georgia. Nevertheless, one thing remained consistent: the Gators’ prioritization of the run game, stacking up a grand total of 954 rushing yards on 133 attempts throughout their last four weeks of play, averaging 7.17 yards per attempt.

Though the Gators may favor keeping the ball on the ground and in the hands of Johnson, freshman running back Trevor Etienne or even Richardson — who stands with 414 rushing yards so far this season — Florida is not without talent in the air. Redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter leads the team this season with 471 receiving yards this season and a standout performance against the Volunteers with seven receptions for 155 yards. Shorter is followed up by sophomore wide receiver Xzavier Henderson who led in receiving yards in Week 9 against the Bulldogs. 

On the other side of the field, the A&M defense has also had its fair share of highs and lows so far this season, starting its season with a 31-0 shutout against Sam Houston State. In spite of the shutout win, the overall defensive performance suggested the struggles that would soon fall upon the Aggies: The highest total tackle numbers stalled at five total tackles. 

However, those fears were put on pause when, despite a lackluster offensive performance that resulted in a loss to Appalachian State, the A&M defense posted stats in line with some of top performances in the 2021 season. Junior defensive back Antonio Johnson tallied 13 total tackles in the game, closely followed by senior linebacker Chris Russell Jr. who totaled 11 tackles and half a sack. Despite in-game missteps, the Fightin’ Farmers managed to make it through weeks 3 and 4 against then-No. 13 Miami and then-No. 10 Arkansas holding both opponents to 21 points or lower. 

The cracks began to show during the team’s matchup against Mississippi State. While the three-man front managed to hold MSU to 144 rushing yards, the Aggie secondary fell apart, giving up 329 receiving yards and 42 points — the highest so far in the season. A&M’s defense forced 11 third-down conversions but allowed the Bulldogs to complete five of them, and MSU also completed both fourth-down conversion attempts. 

Since the Week 5 matchup against Mississippi State, the maroon and white struggled to find their footing, contributing to a four-game losing streak as they head into Week 10. In the contest last week against Ole Miss, Durkin and the defense showed promise in their ability to adapt, shifting lineman strategies after the Rebels managed a scoring drive in just seven plays. The Aggies succeeded in slowing down the Ole Miss run game, preventing the Rebels from reaching the end zone for the remainder of the first quarter, however, as the match progressed, holes began to open in the defensive line. Despite 16 forced third downs, the Rebels were able to convert on seven of them, with sophomore quarterback Jaxson Dart using his legs for many. 

“We just have to do a better job at keeping the pocket contained,” freshman defensive lineman Albert Regis said about what went wrong against Ole Miss. “We were doing a good job at collapsing the pocket, but you have to be able to collapse the pocket and also keep containment at the same time. And for him to be able to run around and extend plays, it’s because we lost our containment.”

If Florida wants to secure a win against A&M, it is going to need to build up its passing game in order to spread out the Aggie defense. Alternatively, the maroon and white will need to find and close any gaps on the line to prevent a Gator run game if they want a chance to break their four-game losing streak. By mid-afternoon on Saturday, one team’s path toward bowl eligibility will be easier and the other’s will be steeper. 

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