Early in the third quarter against Texas A&M, Arkansas strung together one of its signature lengthy drives. Like we have come to expect, Texas A&M allowed it.
Over a 9-minute stretch, Arkansas drove from its own 5-yard line into Aggie territory. A well-placed pass from Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen to tight end Jeremy Sprinkle gave the Razorbacks a first down at the 2-yard line.
With four shots to push a running back 72 inches into the end zone, scheme became secondary. At its core, these goal line stands are a battle of grit and tenacity, which team wants it more – all the clichés come out.
First down was a running back dive to Rawleigh Williams behind lead blocker Austin Cantrell; Texas A&M linebacker Shaan Washington got a hold of him and limited Williams to just one yard. Allen tried a sneak on the next two plays and was stuffed both times without a gain. Finally, with the game tied 17-17 and just a few minutes left in the third quarter, Arkansas decided to go for it on fourth down.
Allen lined up under center with one running back in the backfield and wide receiver Keon Hatcher the lone receiver out wide on the weak side. Hatcher went into motion before the play and received the ball moving laterally into space. But before he could break for the end zone, Texas A&M safety Armani Watts dragged him down behind the line for a 5-yard loss, ending a 19-play, 89-yard, 10-minute drive with no points and a turnover on downs.
Two plays later, Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight found wide receiver Josh Reynolds for a 92-yard touchdown to take a 24-17 lead. The Aggies would never trail again.
“We felt like we needed to get into the end zone and we didn’t feel good about the push we got up there,” Bielema said after the game. “We felt good about the play, we just couldn’t punch it in.”
With that goal line stand, the Aggies made an unequivocal statement. This is exactly the kind of game Texas A&M would have lost during its early days in the SEC. While Knight had a nice game, he threw for just 225 yards. However, Texas A&M out-gained the Razorbacks 591 to 491, obliterated them with 10.0 yards per play to 6.0 and out-rushed them 366 to 120 en route to a 45-24 win over Arkansas.
In a twist, running and defense – the Aggies’ biggest weaknesses a few years ago – have quickly become strengths. If that development holds, the Aggies are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC and a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.
This isn’t the first time the Aggies have gotten off to a fast start. Texas A&M jumped up to No. 9 in the AP Top 25 in each of the past two seasons, but finished both unranked. However, the way the Aggies are winning these games is completely different. After years of piecemeal, Texas A&M has a complete football team.
It wasn’t that long ago that Texas A&M was one of the worst defenses in all of college football. The Aggies gave up 475.8 yards per game in 2013, and needed Johnny Manziel’s heroics just to lead them to an 8-4 regular season.
But three years later, that team is unrecognizable. After hiring defensive mastermind John Chavis, the Aggies have quickly developed into one of the most underrated defenses in football. While Texas A&M’s 390.8 yards per game allowed is impressive in itself, especially considering its tough schedule, the raw numbers don’t do the defense justice.
Thanks to a dynamic offense, Texas A&M spends the majority of its time on defense. However, the Aggies rank No. 24 nationally allowing just 4.79 yards per play. On offense, they average 7.13 yards per play, good enough for No. 11 nationally, despite playing against UCLA, Auburn and Arkansas.
Defensive end Myles Garrett has changed the culture around this team and Chavis has only added to the success. The defensive line has quickly grown into one of the best in the nation. A relatively green group of linebackers has grown quickly to stifle elite rushing attacks. The cornerbacks still need to grow, but both Priest Willis and Nick Harvey have shown flashes of brilliance in spots.
While there has been plenty of development on defense, there is a new identity on offense as well. It may be just four games into the year, but the Aggies quietly produced the most efficient running game in the SEC. Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford was expected to be the guy, but true freshman running back Trayveon Williams has taken control of the offense. He had breakaway touchdowns of 33 and 22 yards against Arkansas to pump up his numbers.
Shockingly, the biggest catalyst of the improved offense has been Knight. The grad transfer was wholly unimpressive during his time at Oklahoma, save a magical and still inexplicable performance against Alabama in the 2013 Sugar Bowl that earned him the alter ego: “Sugar Bowl Trevor Knight.”
But while Sumlin and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone expected to be getting a quarterback for a largely spread air raid attack, Knight has been more productive with his feet. He ranks No. 12 on the conference rushing list and is tied with two other players for the SEC lead with 5 rushing scores. The threat of his feet open up lanes for Williams in the zone read and help ease the pressure on an offensive line that could be the one suspect spot on the team.
To contend for a national championship, teams have to be able to compete in every phase of the game. Diversifying the offense and continuing to grow in key positions on defense has helped the Aggies get off to a quick 4-0 start, and Texas A&M shows no signs of slowing down. However, tests on Oct. 8 and 15 against No. 11 Tennessee and No. 1 Alabama will instantly reveal the true conviction of this team.