Texas A&M – Florida International Game Analysis

By David Sandhop
Aggie Websider

The Texas A&M football team looked dead in the water and staring at a devastating loss to Florida International near the end of the third quarter down 20-6.  Jerrod Johnson had thrown four second half interceptions, including one returned for a Golden Panther touchdown.  At that point, head coach Mike Sherman went back to basics and established the ground game.  In the fourth quarter, the Aggies ran the ball for 122 yards and two touchdown runs of 37 and 40 yards.  In the meantime, the Aggie defense did their job keeping the game close, forcing five consecutive punts and only 35 yards of offense in the second half.

The Texas A&M defense played a great game overall.  The defense inherited a short field from the offense several times Saturday night and allowed just the 13 points.  Until the game’s final drive, the longest FIU drive was 27 yards.  The one TD drive was merely 19 yards.  The first FG drive came on a 5-yard drive.  The last FG came on a 27-yard drive.

I thought the defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and stopped the run.  I thought inside linebackers Garrick Williams and Michael Hodges played a great game and forced stops near the line of scrimmage.  On offense,  I thought the receivers had a very good game, and aside from Christine Michael’s two fumbles I thought the running backs were the keys to the 21-point fourth quarter turnaround with the two touchdown runs.

So almost all aspects of the game were executed well by A&M.  Even the special teams played error-free football despite a few weak kickoffs and short punts.  So why did A&M almost lose a game where they were 28 point home favorites?  You can point to two areas.

1)  The tackles struggled the first 45 minutes of the game

2)  The play of QB Jerrod Johnson

As for the tackles, I thought both Luke Joeckel and Brian Thomas had some issues with FIU’s speed at defensive end.  They missed some assignments and that caused Johnson to take some heat in the pocket, but I also saw that they hung in there and improved their play in both the ground game that won the contest and in pass protection on the few pass attempts A&M made in the second half.    I’ve seen much worse on the A&M line through the years, and with that said I think Joeckel and company made some improvements later in the game that encouraged me.  I think the line will be fine.

Surprisingly, the one glaring issue on this team is quarterback play.  I’ve said for 1.5 months now on this blog and I continue to say it…this is not the 2009 Johnson for whatever reason.  His passes don’t seem to be getting any better, and his lack of arm strength and struggles to execute a long pass downfield has allowed solid defenses like FIU’s to crowd the line of scrimmage and kill two birds with one stone:

1)  Attack the run through run blitzes and filling the box with 7-8 players

2)  Crowding the line of scrimmage also limits the short timing routes which begs for the offense to go deep and spread the field.  Yet, JJ and the Aggies can’t go deep because Johnson simply can’t deliver the ball with enough zip or accuracy.

This is nothing new.  JJ didn’t mysteriously get injured this week.  The difference this week was a very fast and capable FIU defense, and they were talented enough to capitalize on Johnson’s shortcomings and force him to throw off his back foot in many cases that he’s just not able to do with zip and accuracy.

There’s just no way around this situation.  Johnson has not gotten appreciably better over the past six weeks.  He’ll have a couple of practices where his throws look slightly better, and then he’ll follow that up with a clunker of a practice or a game like tonight.

Not only did Johnson make numerous mistakes that led to the interceptions, but his lack of strength and his struggles to hit open men downfield simply draws the defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage and causes problems throughout the offense.  At that point, the defense can simply tee off and not worry too much about being beaten deep and fly to the ball in front of them.

I simply don’t know how much longer Coach Sherman can keep the status quo.  I know Johnson is a leader and someone who can be a great college quarterback when he’s hitting on all cylinders.  But he almost single-handedly lost the FIU game which would have been a disaster to this team and this program under Sherman.

Sherman is in an extremely tough position to support his guy at quarterback, especially one that was receiving all-conference and preseason MVP honors.  He’s the face of this program and it’s a risk in giving the reins to an inexperienced signal caller like Ryan Tannehill.  However, if A&M doesn’t make a change with Johnson and he can’t get his throwing where it needs to be, I think the season is in jeopardy of being one in the 6-6/7-5 range.

Personally, I do think Tannehill has run this offense long enough over the past three years in practice that he’s ready when needed, and his extra quickness in throwing the passes and executing the short game will be a plus.  But again, this decision is very complicated and has ramifications for the program for years to come, so I’m going to stop short at the moment calling for a new quarterback….although I think the staff should analyze the situation long and hard during the bye-week and come up with what is best for the team and the program in 2010 and beyond.

Aside from the quarterback deal, I really do like the fact that this team didn’t panic and they came back and delivered under pressure…both units!  The defense has me excited, while the situation on offense is tenuous at the moment with the questions surrounding Johnson.  Luckily, the team has 10 days to find some answers when they go on the road to open up Big 12 play in Stillwater on Thursday night against Oklahoma State.

Sandhop