The club of active quarterbacks to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide is one of the most exclusive in football. Heading into Week 8, the club includes just Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly and Texas A&M Trevor Knight, who faces off against the vaunted Crimson Tide on Saturday.
Knight’s career-changing win came in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, when No. 11 Oklahoma shocked No. 3 Alabama 45-31. Then a redshirt freshman, Knight threw for a career-high 348 yards (which is still his career high) and 4 touchdowns against the Crimson Tide’s defense, then led by current NFL stars C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin dismiss taking too much away from the performance. Alabama’s roster is almost completely different and the young performers that remain have grown up. Knight also plays in a completely different offensive system compared to 2013, going from an air raid to more of a power spread under Noel Mazzone. That doesn’t even take into account that Alabama was fresh off two national championships and might not have taken the game seriously enough.
But in advance of what could be the SEC game of the year, we went back and watched every one of Knight’s 74 snaps from the Sugar Bowl. Here are some of the takeaways the Aggies should integrate into their game plan in Tuscaloosa.
Utilize tempo and spread
Alabama’s defense has improved tremendously over the past few seasons in dealing with spread concepts, but tempo and spacing are still two of the ways to get Alabama playing on its back foot. Ole Miss has used these concepts effectively, and Knight did in the Sugar Bowl.
There are a few distinct ways Oklahoma used this offense, and a couple others that Texas A&M can use within the system it runs.
Knight is an inconsistent passer and shows inconsistent technique throwing on the run. To counter this limitation, Oklahoma instead chose to try and create as many one-read plays as possible.
A great example of this came at the end of the first half of the Sugar Bowl. Knight came out in the shotgun with three receivers, a running back behind and a fullback to the left. He ran play action with the running back, stepped back in the pocket and delivered a perfect 43-yard bomb to Jalen Saunders for a go-ahead touchdown with three minutes left to go in the half.
Now whether Knight can be trusted to deliver that kind of pass consistently is certainly in question, but he is much more consistent when he is throwing with correct form and not under pressure. Knight also has been inconsistent reading defenses, so this takes away most of that responsibility.
For whatever reason, Bob Stoops tended to avoid letting Knight run. Rather than running the run-pass option that has made Knight one of the most dangerous players in football, Stoops relied on traditional play-action sets to freeze the defense and create openings for Knight to toss the ball downfield.
Mazzone has embraced Knight’s running ability and allowed run-pass options to open the field for either Knight or running back Trayveon Williams. The most notable example was against Arkansas, when Knight had multiple breakaway runs for touchdowns to flip the game. The breakaway plays won’t happen against Alabama, but the runs still can pick away at the defense.
Be patient with the ball
Alabama is outstanding at punishing opposing defenses, so keeping its offense off the field is a priority or teams will get worn down on defense. Even though former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel ran an air raid, he still noted the importance.
Knight completed 32 passes, but 24 were for 10 yards or less. In fact, 122 of his passing yards came on just three completions; take out those passes and Knight averaged just 7.8 yards per completion. While this can be perceived as a negative, the short completions actually played a significant role in the win.
Oklahoma was able to edge Alabama slightly in the time-of-possession battle despite averaging just 5.8 yards per play. Accepting the short plays down the field ultimately ended up wearing down an injured Alabama front and allowing Oklahoma to pull away. The Sooners accomplished this through screen passes — Texas A&M can do it through run-pass option.
Be fearless after turnovers
Alabama turned the ball over 5 times in the Sugar Bowl, which almost certainly is not sustainable against this year’s team. What set Oklahoma apart in the win wasn’t just the turnovers, it’s how aggressive it was coming off of them.
The Sooners scored 35 points off of turnovers, or a touchdown every time Alabama coughed the ball up. One of the scores was a fumble recovery for touchdown in the waning seconds, but two of the other touchdowns came just one play after a takeaway.
Heupel set the tone after Oklahoma intercepted A.J. McCarron and took over at the Alabama 45-yard line early in the first quarter. Knight came out in the shotgun with two running backs as blockers in the backfield. Oklahoma immediately sent two receivers streaking downfield and Knight delivered a strike just out of reach of a defensive back that was caught and housed by WR Lacoltan Bester.
Alabama scored quickly to take a 7-0 lead, but this pass tied the game and set the tone that Oklahoma had no plans to play scared. Oklahoma went straight for the throat against Alabama, and it paid off. Texas A&M has to play to win.
Hit some home runs
While most of the previous keys have to do with beating Alabama play to play, the reality is that Knight had an out-of-body experience against the Crimson Tide on that January night in New Orleans. Texas A&M is more talented than that Oklahoma team was up front and Knight is a much more experienced player, but it still isn’t enough.
Alabama has recruited at a higher level than any program in recent memory and simply has better athletes all over the field. Even though Texas A&M can match up in many areas, the reality is that Knight and the Aggies offense will have to make some plays.
Oklahoma scored on 45- and 43-yard touchdowns in the win, not to mention a defensive score down the stretch to ice the game. This time, Knight has the most loaded wide receiver corps in the nation, featuring Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil. Williams might be the conference’s most consistent back. To beat Alabama, some plays are going to have to go your direction in a big way.