John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
After a week off to prepare, the Alabama Crimson Tide is set for another Game of the Century on Saturday in College Station against the Texas A&M Aggies.
Nick Saban’s record in revenge games is well known, and he has led the Crimson Tide to a 7-1 record against teams they lost to in the previous season.
The one loss was against LSU in 2011, but the Crimson Tide remedied that by defeating the Tigers in New Orleans for the national championship to avenge their consecutive losses at the hands of Les Miles and company.
Saban will look to run that record to 8-1 on Saturday as the Tide looks to avenge last season’s 29-24 loss to the Aggies in Tuscaloosa; the lone blemish in Alabama’s national championship season.
In last season’s game, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the high-powered Texas A&M offense delivered a series of blows in the first quarter that knocked the champions to the canvas. It was 20-0 Aggies before the Crimson Tide even knew what hit them.
Alabama rallied, however, as they have often done, and had every opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. Trailing 29-17 following a terrific touchdown pass by Manziel, AJ McCarron hit Amari Cooper for a 54-yard touchdown strike to cut the lead to five.
Alabama’s defense rose to the occasion and forced a three-and-out to get the ball back in McCarron’s hands. Alabama wasted little time and immediately took a shot down field, with McCarron hitting Kenny Bell for 54 yards, down to the A&M six yard line.
After three unsuccessful plays, the Crimson Tide was set with a fourth-and-goal from the two yard line. McCarron’s pass was intercepted in the endzone, and that effectively ended the game even though the Crimson Tide had another chance to get the ball back, but jumped offsides with Texas A&M lined up to punt to drive the final nail in their own coffin.
That loss is still very much in the minds of the players who were there to experience it a year ago. Motivational material has hung in the Tide’s weight room in the offseason, along with playing the game on an endless loop on the television screens.
Alabama will try to right the wrong from last season, and while Saban and the players will say it until they are blue in the face that last season’s game doesn’t matter because it was a different team, it matters to the players who returned for 2013. It matters to the likes of C.J. Mosley, HaHa Clinton-Dix, and Vinnie Sunseri among many others because they were key cogs on a defense that failed to shut down Texas A&M’s offense like they did many others.
The 2013 Aggies Offense
Texas A&M’s offense has looked as potent as ever in the first two games of the season, even without star left tackle Luke Joeckel, who was taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the second overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The Aggies are averaging 58.5 points and 600 yards of total offense per game through the season’s first two weeks, albeit against a pair of cupcake opponents in Rice and Sam Houston State.
Johnny Manziel has looked like Johnny Football since returning from his half-game suspension in the season opener against Rice. He has thrown for just under 500 yards while completing 69 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and only one interception.
He has looked comfortable in the pocket, and has only run the ball 13 times in two games. To put that in perspective, Manziel had only three games last season where he carried the ball less than 13 times.
While he has looked more sure as a passer, you certainly can’t discount his legs and his ability to extend plays by scrambling. The low rushing totals so far more than likely have more to do with head coach Kevin Sumlin trying to keep his star quarterback healthy against lesser opponents before unleashing him at Kyle Field against the Crimson Tide.
The Aggies are loaded at the skill positions and figure to be a huge test for an Alabama secondary that has a few question marks. At wide receiver, sophomore Mike Evans and senior Malcome Kennedy are back from last season, and both gave the Crimson Tide their fair share of problems in coverage.
However, the one receiver who gave Alabama the most grief, Ryan Swope, is gone. Manziel went to Swope time and time again as he continually picked on the Crimson Tide’s nickel corners. Swope had 11 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown last season.
While Swope is a hard guy to replace, Texas A&M certainly has a bevy of other talented receivers itching to get their crack at the defending champs. Highly regarded true freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and Ja’Quay Williams give the Crimson Tide a whole new set of problems with their size and ability.
You also can’t discount sophomore Sabian Holmes, who figures to play a Swope-like role in the slot for the Aggies this weekend.
Those Aggies receivers will probably see a good dose of man coverage, and it will be up to the Crimson Tide’s secondary to make plays. Seniors Deion Belue and John Fulton will match up with the outside guys, but it will be interesting to see who gets the nod at the “star” position when Alabama goes to nickel and dime sets. It was sophomore Geno Smith’s job in fall camp, but he was suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech for a DUI arrest.
It’s likely that Smith will see a lot of playing time on Saturday, and they’ll need him to shake off any rust he has as quickly as possible. Also look for junior Jarrick Williams to see some time at the position after taking Smith’s place in the opener and performing well.
Sophomore safety Landon Collins should have a prominent role in the secondary as well, because the Crimson Tide will be in nickel and dime defenses quite a bit against Manziel and company.
The toughest thing about playing Texas A&M is their balance on offense. Alabama can’t sell out to stop the pass because of Manziel’s ability as a runner, along with a talented stable of running backs who will shred six-man fronts.
Senior Ben Malena and sophomore Tra Carson will get the majority of the carries in the backfield. The Crimson Tide surrendered more rushing yards than usual against Virginia Tech in their season opener in the Georgia Dome, which was largely due to the 77-yard touchdown run they gave up in the first quarter. They generally won the battle up front aside from that play, but they can’t allow Malena or Carson to get loose like that if they want to get the win.
Texas A&M is averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground through two weeks, which is in large part thanks to the performance of their offensive line. A lot of people had concerns about the Aggies up front after losing Luke Joeckel, but senior Jake Matthews made the move to left tackle to quell such concerns. Matthews is a highly sought after NFL prospect in his own right.
So, how can Alabama stop Johnny Football and Texas A&M? It’s the question that has caused many a late night for Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart throughout the offseason and into game week preparation. What they did last season obviously didn’t work, even though things got better defensively as the game wore on.
As any well coached team will do, Alabama made adjustments that slowed down Texas A&M after the first quarter, but Manziel still made the plays he had to for his team to walk out of Bryant-Denny with a victory.
Against most mobile quarterbacks, you can sell out to stop the run and force him to beat you with his arm. Alabama did this last season when they switched to more of a man-to-man defense in the second half, after playing mostly zone as the Aggies raced out to a 20-point lead. Johnny Football happily obliged and beat the Crimson Tide with his arm in the fourth quarter, with his perfectly placed touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy proving to be the difference on the scoreboard.
Manziel is too good of a passer to sell out against the run and force him to throw. The defense that Alabama could employ in an attempt to stop Manziel is Saban’s patented Rip/Liz Match defense that he devised with Bill Belichick when they coached together with the Cleveland Browns.
Chris B. Brown, A.K.A. Smart Football, breaks down the Rip/Liz Match defensive scheme in great detail in his terrific piece on Alabama’s strategies to stop Manziel this time around.
To briefly summarize, in Rip/Liz Match zone defenders play man-to-man after the receivers have ran their patterns. In Rip/Liz Match, the defense adjusts to what the offense does on the fly.
It was the inside receivers that gave the Crimson Tide the most trouble last season, with the aforementioned Ryan Swope having a huge day. In this defense, if the tight end and/or slot receivers run down the seams, then the nickel defenders run with them. But, if the receivers break inside or outside, the linebackers and nickel defenders pass them on to other defenders and drop into their zone.
The most important part of this defense is that it would allow the Crimson Tide to keep an extra defender in the box for the purpose of stopping the run or spying on Johnny Manziel.
Of course, that’s not to say that this is the specific strategy Saban and Smart will deploy on Saturday, but it does seem to offer them the best shot at slowing down Manziel. Of course, those two have been working all summer to devise a plan to slow Sumlin’s offense, and it could be that we see something completely different.
In any case, it’ll be exciting to see what they have come up with, and if it will actually work against an offense that has looked unstoppable since the emergence of Johnny Football. Even with a perfect gameplan, Alabama’s defense will have to execute it properly for it to work, and with several factors working against them — including the heat and A&M’s frantic pace — it will be a tremendous challenge.
Stopping the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is a daunting task that will take a near perfect performance from the Tide’s defense to become a reality.
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