Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight stood back in the pocket waiting to receive the snap with just 21 seconds left to go in the first half against No. 17 Arkansas.
The Aggies were trailing 17-10 against the Razorbacks at that point and had struggled to get any consistent offense moving against their disruptive defense. Knight had thrown for just 68 yards in the half, well below expectations and not quite good enough considering the efficient offense on the other sideline.
But with perhaps the nation’s best receiving corps spreading the field four-wide, Knight saw a hole in the defense and made a call at the line. Although Arkansas was in a 4-3 defense, two of the linebackers were fading out to cover wide receivers in the slot, leaving only middle linebacker Brooks Ellis to cover the middle of the field.
Running back Keith Ford went into motion, Ellis followed, Knight faked backwards, broke through the line and ran nearly uncontested for a game-changing 48-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 17-17.
It was Knight’s second breakaway rushing score of the game and helped keep the Aggies in it against Arkansas. After the defense held Arkansas scoreless on a 10-minute drive, Knight later threw a 92-yard touchdown pass to a streaking Josh Reynolds that put the Aggies up for good.
It’s no secret that Knight is an inconsistent passer at best, and has been since his days at Oklahoma. He completed just over 57 percent of his passes there; that is down all the way to 53.5 percent this season for the Aggies.
This would seem to be a nightmare for Texas A&M considering head coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense, which is a fairly traditional air raid spread. Since Sumlin arrived in College Station, the Aggies have passed the ball on 51 percent of their plays and rushed on 49. However, the disparity in effectiveness has been massive: The Aggies averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt and just 5.0 yards per rush attempt. More than 62 percent of the team’s offensive production comes through the air.
Bringing in Knight made keeping up that strategy illogical. He entered a spread offense last year at Oklahoma, and there’s a reason he was soundly beat out by Baker Mayfield. He simply does not have a consistent enough arm to be able to be an effective air raid quarterback.
“It’s different when you have a fifth-year guy,” Sumlin said. “You have two plans going. You’ve got to win and keep developing him, but you also have to play to his strengths because he doesn’t have three, four, five years to develop. We have to get on the same page quickly and use his skills the best we can.”
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, new from UCLA after Jake Spavital was fired, went back to the drawing board and found what could be his greatest untapped resource: Knight’s running ability.
“It reminds me a lot of when I had Brett [Hundley],” Mazzone said after the Arkansas game. “When your quarterback becomes a serious threat as a runner, it creates serious problems for the defense and more options for us.”
Stoops hesitated to use Knight as a runner when he was a starter, even though he averaged 5.6 yards per carry during his time at Oklahoma. His most productive running season came in 2013, when he was a freshman and was used as a change-of-pace running quarterback next to Blake Bell. He never posted more than 68 rushes in a season until now. He has 65 already in 2016. However, reviewing the film from 2015, it was a necessity to put more pressure on the defense.
When quarterback Kyle Allen was under center last season, four defensive backs would line up against wide receivers, five of the front seven would match up with offensive linemen and another running back was left free. That meant a free linebacker would either be able to blitz without consequence, stop the run or play in extra coverage and give his line time to get into the pocket. But when the quarterback has to be accounted for as a legitimate playmaker with the ball, that free linebacker all of a sudden has to spy on the quarterback and prepare in case of a run, or watch Knight slip past the defense and go for a long run.
At its core, football is a numbers game trying to take away as many one-on-one matchups as possible. When Texas A&M goes four-wide at receiver, it spreads the field from sideline to sideline and forces linebackers to help on slot receivers and safeties to be ready over the top for the long ball. Eventually, Knight just has to wait for one of the one-on-one matchups to breakdown and find an opening.
“This is a quarterback driven offense because so many split decisions have to be made in a [run-pass option] type offense,” Mazzone said. “You’re giving him a pre-snap decision, then you’re giving him a decision at the snap, whether to hand it off or pull it, even after he pulls the ball, he makes a third decision when he goes outside.”
The results are already revealing themselves. Knight has accumulated 502 rushing yards — No. 8 in the conference and best among quarterbacks — and 9 rushing scores — best in the SEC and No. 3 in the nation. His 7.7 yards per carry is the best in his career by far and has him fourth in the conference through six games.
The space he creates with his legs has also helped open things up for a breakout true freshman, running back Trayveon Williams. The Houston King product leads the SEC with 704 rushing yards and averages an absurd 8.6 yards per carry.
Texas A&M leads the conference in total offense, ranks third in scoring offense and fourth in rushing offense. This is a complete team offensive performance unlike what we’ve seen since Sumlin arrived in College Station in 2012.
To be clear, Texas A&M isn’t simply beating up on lesser competition. The Aggies have the No. 13 strength of schedule in the nation according to Massey after playing five Power Five games, four SEC games and three matchups against ranked competition. It remains to be seen if this strategy will work against Ole Miss or Alabama, but the results are there.
Knight isn’t a traditionally great quarterback, but he has filled every single role that Texas A&M needed him to address this season. Breaking through the 6-0 glass ceiling and beating two ranked opponents at Kyle Field was unprecedented for a Sumlin quarterback. He has six more regular season games left to become an Aggie legend.
“We knew he was a great decision maker when he decided to come here,” Mazzone said.
“Thank goodness, right?”