It was a different game with a different strategy, but it proved Alabama can beat you in ways you hadn’t thought of.
The Strategy Behind the Alabama Win Over Texas A&M
By Larry Burton
Trying to contain all that Johnny Manziel can do is like trying to contain a tornado. There are just too many variables to contend with when you have a quarterback as good as any running back and as accurate as Manziel can be when he’s on his game.
Saban knew going into the game he couldn’t contain that offense and keep them from putting points on the board, so instead of a football game, Saban began to look at this more like a tennis match. If his own offense could hold serve most every time with the defense being able to break the serves of the Aggie Offense more often than his own would be broken, then he could win.
Rule number one was keep serving the ball yourself and limit the number of opportunities that Manziel could do his magic.
At the first of the game, Saban wanted A&M to show their cards early and it seemed to him that A&M would simply do what had worked before. Run Manziel enough to force Alabama into one on one situations with the receivers. The trouble is, it worked just as it had before. While Alabama was hoping that the loss of key receiver Ryan Swope to the NFL would help them, but Saban had been warned all week that the Aggie’s newest threat, 6’5” Mike Evans would be an even tougher matchup for Alabama’s smallish defenders. That was certainly the case all day long.
By the time Saban’s offense got to touch the ball, they were behind 7-0.
Saban’s idea to run the ball, control the clock and keep Manziel on the bench looked like it may be a great idea as Yeldon ran for 7 big yards on the first offensive play, but Alabama shot themselves in the foot twice with false start calls and with Saban being unwilling to risk a deep pass on second and third and long, the conservative play calling following the two penalties made him punt.
Then it was back to Manziel running for a big first down and then another in back to back plays before hitting hitting Evans yet again for 34 big yards. After a one yard run it was 14-0 and Alabama had run three offensive plays and punted.
With McCarron and the Alabama brain trust all seeing that Texas A&M was going to crowd the line to stop the run, Saban and Douglas Keith “Doug” Nussmeier both decided to show them that McCarron had not only full permission to change the play called for one he felt better suited the situation, but the ability to pull off that play well. Two back to back 13 yard tosses to Cooper and Norwood made them start playing a little deeper and Jalston Fowler showed them how their day would go if they didn’t pack the line by bursting a 15 yard run down to the Aggie 34. When AJ came to the line and saw that they were packing the line again, he threw over the linebackers to tight end Brian Vogler for another quick 12 yard gain. Seeing that A&M was going to continue to try and stop the run first by packing the line once again, McCarron checked off, went deep and found Kevin Norwood for a TD.
Now it was 14-7, Bama had held serve and did it in a way that must have sent shivers down the spines of the A&M team. Alabama showed them that if it looked like they were trying to stop the run, they would pass and after one bad series, that they were primed and ready to go with McCarron looking more comfortable than ever. If they tried to stop the pass, they’d be happy to run the ball and do so with dire consequences to the Aggies.
Texas A&M then proceeded to go back to well and draw upon the things that had worked like clockwork so far. After a botched kickoff return put the ball on the two, Manziel was able to escape the goal line with another opening play run just as he had done in the first two series. That 8 yard run got them into a short yardage situation. Following an incomplete pass, Sumlin figured that Bama would sell out to keep Manziel from running again and getting a first down with a conservative running play.
That is indeed what Alabama set out to do and Manziel simply went deep in one on one coverage and found the man Alabama simply couldn’t deal with, Mike Evans, for his third catch of over 30 yards in just three possessions so far. Then A&M did what Alabama had done in their first possession. They imploded upon themselves with penalties. First Mike Evans for pushing off and then a false start of their own.
So while Alabama proved that so far their defense seemed not able to stop the Aggie offense, the Aggies proved they could stop themselves.
McCarron was now tasked with holding serve and tying the game. Following two throws to Cooper that showed Cooper is human and can drop balls, McCarron proved that he’s a man who believes in his players and went back to him for a third throw that Cooper would haul in for a big first down and a 21 yard gain. All the while A&M was still up on the line daring McCarron to beat them.
McCarron followed up with a short 15 pass to freshman OJ Howard and with the ball at the Aggie 45, Sumlin was sure that Saban would go conservative and start running the ball. Bama did consider this but when McCarron brought the team to the line, saw the intent of A&M he checked off to a flea flicker and found DeAndrew White running behind the defenders for an easy score.
For A&M, it was a dilemma now. They could either try and stop the run and be killed in the passing game, try and stop the passing game and be killed by the run or try and run vanilla defense and risk not being able to stop either very well.
But Alabama was facing a similar problem trying to stop the Aggie defense. The only time either offense was stopped when it inflicted penalties on itself to kill drives. Alabama still had no answer of defense.
When A&M got the ball they marched once again down the field mixing in Manziel runs with good passes. On first and goal from the Alabama 7 yard line, Manziel rushed for 3 yards and on second and goal Manziel made his first big mistake and overthrew 6’3” Ja’Quay Williams right into the waiting arms of Alabama defender Cyrus Jones for a touchback.
Now the all important score was Alabama was ahead of service breaks 2-1 and now was the chance for Alabama to finally lead this game.
Thinking Alabama would go to work on the clock and try and establish the running game, the Aggies continued to crowd the line, and it started off working as Alabama’s first play was a rush that only went for 2 yards. Then McCarron found a young man who came of age in this game, OJ Howard, who nabbed a pass and tacked on some extra yards with a good run to gain 27 quick yards and get them out to mid field. After an incomplete pass McCarron saw eight in the box and threw a quick sideline pass to Kenny Bell who streaked down the field for a 51 yard pass and run.
Now it was Alabama ahead of the Aggies 21-14 and ahead by one service break just as they were ahead by one touchdown.
Now Kirby Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator decided to turn up the heat and instead of trying to contain Manziel in the pocket, which wasn’t working, he’d rush more and take his chances that way. Alabama wanted to break the offense one more time in the half and try and pad the lead.
After a penalty and a first down that should have never been called, the heat got to Manziel and he went down for a 5 yard loss. A quick 9 yard toss to running back Brett Malena made it 3rd and 6 and the heat got to Manziel again as he attempted to rush, but for no gain.
The switch had caught A&M off guard and worked.
Now with the ball and 7:08 on the clock until the half, it was going to be ball control and kill the clock.
A&M blinked and got out of crowding the line due to the extreme success McCarron was having and what followed was predictably Bama, 3 quick running plays netting two first downs and 26 quick yards. So A&M inched back up to the line and McCarron responded by throwing over the first wave to tight end Brian Vogler for what looked like an all to easy 12 yards.
A&M now saw that not some of the time, but almost every time they jammed the line McCarron made it look to easy to simply throw over them. It was clear that he was now in rhythm and seeing everything. Even when man to man coverage was good on the first two primary targets, McCarron was finding the 3rd option and completing his passes. So once again they blinked and changed from stacking the line.
It was the wrong move at the wrong time. With McCarron seeing what they were giving him, he milked the clock each play while handing the ball off to running backs Kenyon Drake and TJ Yeldon who moved the chains and kept the clock running. When the 6:23 drive was finally over the score was 28-14 and there was less than a minute on the clock.
In the first half, Texas A&M was only able to stop Alabama on one drive, while Alabama was able to break serve on the Aggies three times, four if you count the few seconds they had the ball before halftime. In reality though, Alabama had truly only stopped them once, the clock stopped them once at the half and the other two stops were from self inflicted penalties and an interception.
Alabama opened on offense in the second half and flubbed the drive with yet another false start penalty, a dropped pass to Cooper and a rush that went nowhere.
In comes Manziel with a chance to get them back in the game. A&M would go back to what worked before, a first down run from Manziel. They were rewarded with a 9 yard gain and a chance to be able to try a deep throw before coming back with a short first down attempt.
But that deep throw ended up being an INT and just as in the last game, once it was in Vinnie Sunseri’s hands, he knew what to do with it running 73 yards for the touchdown.
Now at 35-14, the game was over, though A&M would make it exciting by getting it back to a touchdown, they had no answer to stop the Alabama offense and only a goal line fumble by Yeldon of Alabama kept it from really getting away from the Aggies.
They would trade some touchdowns, but the game was over. It was evident that Alabama could not only score at will but run the clock almost at will too.
After the game, some idiot sportscasters actually announced “Alabama has survived A&M”. In reality, A&M survived total embarrassment by Alabama fumbling at the goal line and not padding the score some more. A&M also survived to still make a good enough showing to hang on to a top 10 spot.
The game was won by Alabama because of Nick Saban’s strategy to not worry about the stats and concentrate on getting punts and turnovers from A&M and breaking more of their serves than they could break of Alabama’s.
The game was won because A&M simply could not stop Alabama’s offense. Each time they attempted to stop the run, McCarron flawlessly burned them with passes. When they dropped to cover passes Bama ripped them with running plays. When they went basic to try and cover both a little, it stopped neither. This game was won because Saban and Nussmier both gave McCarron the ability to check out of a play and take what they gave him. He never made a mistake.
The game was won because Smart figured out to do just enough heat at just the right time to get Manziel out of rhythm and get just enough breaks to assure a Tide win.
But mostly the game was won because Alabama players believed in their coaches and the game plan they had developed and the coaches in turn believed in their players and knew they wouldn’t get down after going down 14-0. They gave McCarron permission to check off and change the call on any play. They also believed these players would do whatever it took, give all that they had and never let up until the final whistle blew.
For a defensive coach like Saban, this was a hard pill to swallow. He knew there was nothing he could draw up on a board to stop A&M from scoring. He had to accept that he would have to win a track meet and come up with something that would win the game and to hell with the stats and that’s just what he did.
For the first time in the Saban era, he dominated a team not with defense, but with offense. He didn’t try and fight fire with water, but fire with fire and it worked. Smart was told to bend but not break and ultimately Manziel imploded on himself. The difference in the game were the two costly picks he threw that swung the game by 14 points.
For Alabama, it was a win that re-defined not only who they are, but what they can do and now teams facing them must have a chill in their spine watching the game film of that offense. Alabama may very well have shown it’s potential on offense last week and proven themselves to be one of the most balanced offenses in college football, but what they really showed was they can and will come up with a strategy to beat you.
It doesn’t hurt to have a team who can pull that strategy off either.
Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow Larry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter