Texas A&M Aggies: Arkansas Razorbacks
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound four-star prospect, a former USC commit, visited Texas A&M unofficially well before the 2012 season began. He made his official visit to Aggieland this weekend to get a second look and a closer look at the campus.
According to LaRue, things went well.
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This is a pretty special time in the life of Lancaster (Texas) High School athlete Nick Harvey.
He's having a blast on the football field, winning with his teammates as they navigate the Texas Class 4A playoffs. The Tigers are in the third round of the postseason for the first time since 2000.
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The 6-foot-3, 196-pound Alaka has been picking up momentum in recruiting this fall. He recently added offers from Mississippi and Northwestern to add to offers he already had from Arkansas, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Several other in-state schools are showing interest in Alaka, including Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M.
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With his size (6-foot-3, 315 pounds), strength and college commitment (Texas A&M), he knows that he's getting an opponent's best effort week in and week out. So it's up to Golden to meet that challenge each time.
"Every day I'm thinking I have to get better at what I do," Golden said. "The dude in front of me, he can hurt me if I don't go hard. That could mess my career up, so every day, I try to go hard."
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One can point to something as specific as penalties, as the Aggies committed nine in each of their first two games but have reduced that number to five combined in their last two games. Or something as abstract as quarterback Johnny Manziel's ability to make throws from the pocket, or the Aggies' ability to close out games -- two more areas where there has been significant improvement from Sept. 8 to now.
Most signs indicate an improving Aggies squad. Now that they're coming off a 48-point win over a Southeastern Conference foe -- even if it was against struggling Arkansas -- it's worth asking: How good can the Aggies be?
"I don't know," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We've got to continue to improve. If we continue to make steps, as I talked to our team about, it's not about our opponent, it's about us. We try to deal with ourselves every Monday and how we can get better and how we can eliminate mistakes and keep our effort level high and become a smarter team."
Playing smart has been a strength for this A&M squad so far. Not only have the Aggies significantly reduced their penalty count, they also have committed just one turnover all season. Manziel, a redshirt freshman who has only four starts to his name, hasn't committed one yet.
Manziel, who has been called "Johnny Football," among other nicknames, has seen his improvement parallel the team's. He struggled some in the second half of the Aggies' season-opening loss to Florida, and the offense as a whole appeared to stall.
Since then, the Aggies have produced points and yards at a high rate, averaging 58.6 points per game in their last three outings and 589.6 yards per game in that same span. Granted, their opponents haven't been as difficult as Florida, a team that's now 4-0 and ranked 11th in the country, but the offense -- and Manziel -- have shown progress nonetheless.
Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury feels Manziel has plenty of room to improve just four starts into his career.
The Kerrville (Texas) Tivy product set an SEC and Texas A&M record with 557 offensive yards (453 passing, 104 rushing) in the win over the Razorbacks. His 453 passing yards were also a school record and he accounted for four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing). As has been the case all season, Manziel committed zero turnovers.
Manziel was also named SEC Tri-Freshman of the Week along with Georgia tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Matthews, a junior right tackle, was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week. Matthews was part of an offensive line that yielded zero sacks and paved the way for a 716-yard offensive output by the Aggies, the third-best single-game total in A&M history. Matthews did not get flagged and graded out the best of the A&M offensive linemen against the Razorbacks.
In the Aggies' 58-10 win over Arkansas on Saturday, the junior came close, but wasn't able to register a successful takedown of quarterback Tyler Wilson before Wilson released a pass.
"When the coaches took us out, I was a little sad because I was so close," Moore said. "When I thought about it when [the coaches] took me out, I thought 'Oh, I didn't get my sack today.' But at the same time I think it plays a factor into the maturity thing."
Moore's maturity and growth has been a focus this season for himself, hammered home by coach Kevin Sumlin and Moore's defensive coaches, coordinator Mark Snyder and defensive line coach Terry Price. After referencing the maturity, Moore uttered a phrase you might not hear often from a defensive end.
"I don't care about the sacks," he said. "The coaches put me in the best position as possible and me doing my scheme and other players doing what they do, it allows me to get one-on-one matchups or free releases to get a sack. I'm happy that I get them, but at the same time, I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about 'What can I do?'
"If I do my assignment right and I hold up this tight end or splatter a tackle...and free up one of my guys and they get a [tackle for loss] or they get a sack, I'm just as happy because it's not about me, it's about the team."
Despite not getting a sack, Moore still made his presence felt in the backfield on Saturday. He added 2.5 tackles for loss, giving him 10.5 for the year, and made perhaps the play that helped put the Razorbacks away for good in the third quarter. After getting into the backfield and blowing right by Arkansas running back Knile Davis, whiffing on a tackle, Moore turned around, chased Davis down and punched the ball out to force a fumble, which was picked up by Aggie teammate Tramain Jacobs and returned 28 yards for a touchdown. That gave A&M a 44-10 lead with 7:06 to go in the third quarter.
"It happened so fast," Moore said. "I got back there and thought I should have had the TFL but I let him slip out and he bounced out to the right. I was so determined, since I missed that tackle, that I needed to go back and make something happened and be a difference maker."
But on Saturday, the Aggies ran the ball effectively in the early stages, and their trio of backs -- Ben Malena, Christine Michael and Trey Williams -- combined for 116 yards on 17 carries, a healthy average of 6.8 yards per carry.
That's easily the best average for the running backs in a single game this season. The Aggies' high tempo on offense helped matters, according to Malena.
"We kept the tempo up," Malena said. "That's something that we stressed all week. And for us [running backs], we just had to read our keys better and run with better vision."
In the first half, Malena -- who was making his third consecutive start -- was particularly effective, carrying five times for 55 yards and adding an 11-yard touchdown reception. Michael, a senior, and Williams, a true freshman, picked up where Malena left off in the second half. Michael finished with 24 yards on five carries and Williams added 33 yards on four totes in addition to 20 receiving yards. Both Michael and Williams got into the end zone as well.
"We have three running backs, all three are going to play," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's a long season. It's kind of like basketball -- we let the hot guy go.
"Ben has been playing very well. Everybody understands there is great competition at that position and when you get in there, you better do your job. All three of those guys are playing well, and we are going to need them throughout the season."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- What a difference a year makes.
Around this time a year ago, Texas A&M wasn't feeling very good about itself. The Aggies, a preseason top-10 team in 2011, were sitting at 2-2 after relinquishing an 18-point halftime lead that resulted in a loss to Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
This year, with new everything -- coaches, players, schemes and a conference -- the Aggies took a 17-point lead into the locker room at halftime and things finished much differently. Texas A&M kept its foot on the gas and rolled to a dominating 58-10 win over the struggling Razorbacks for its first Southeastern Conference victory.
If the early season signs are any indication, this is a new brand of Texas A&M football.
"We got the monkey off our back today," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Everybody's talking about what happens to us in the second half. These guys were determined all week to play. Our players and coaching staff did a nice job."
There wasn't discussion of last year's second-half collapse amongst the Aggies (3-1, 1-1 SEC). And while it should be noted that this, too, is a much different Razorbacks (1-4, 0-2) squad that is watching its season unravel before everyone's eyes, the strides that the Aggies made on Saturday are significant.
These teams met each of the last three seasons, and the Aggies were on the wrong end of it all three times. Led by a determined senior class and a wunderkind quarterback in Johnny Manziel, the Aggies weren't about to let history repeat itself.
"We've been talking about that all summer," senior linebacker Sean Porter said. "We talked about just coming out and finishing, coming out in the second half and continuing to play the way we've been playing. If we just play our game -- it's all about us -- I think we can compete with anybody."
Offensively, Manziel was nothing short of brilliant. He broke school records for passing yards (453) and total offense (557) while completing 29-of-38 of his passes and passing the century mark on the ground (104 yards). He threw for three touchdowns, ran for another in which he circled the pocket only to dance his way to the pylon and once again didn't turn the ball over.
He made quality throws from the pocket, spread the ball around to receivers and backs, ran when he had room and moved the offense down the field with a mix of small and big plays.
"I felt like it was the best game he has played in the pocket," offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "It was nice to see him be confident in his throws and be accurate."
Defensively, the Aggies weren't dominant in the yardage department, but they were effective. After allowing 10 first-quarter points, Texas A&M shut the Razorbacks out the rest of the way. Arkansas started the game converting three of its first four third downs, but only converted 6-of-18 after that. The Razorbacks were 1-of-5 on red zone chances and while they moved the ball to the tune of 515 yards, they weren't making the big plays that result in points with the exception of Knile Davis' 64-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first quarter.
"This whole week we have emphasized turnovers," Terrell said. "As great as our offense is, if we get any turnovers, they want to turn it into points. All we've been working on is trying to get turnovers and luckily we finally got some this week."
As the Aggies turn their attention forward, they are preparing to face a difficult stretch on their schedule. Five of the next six games are on the road, four of which are at SEC venues. There are no open dates thanks to the rescheduling of their season opener against Louisiana Tech, which now sits smack dab in the middle of the upcoming stretch on Oct. 13, a week before the Aggies return home to host LSU.
The Aggies say they have an idea of how good they can be and despite the state of their opponent Saturday, they have reason to feel good. In the next six weeks, we'll find out how good they really are.
"We've got to continue to improve," Sumlin said. "It's not about the opponent, it's about us. How we can get better, how we can eliminate mistakes and become a smarter team. Our guys are listening and trying to do what we ask.
"We are capable of a lot and confidence is a big part of that."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M put the pedal to the metal and didn't ease up, rolling to a dominating 58-10 win over Arkansas on Saturday at Kyle Field. Here's how it played out:
It was over when: Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore forced a Knile Davis fumble that was picked up and returned 28 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Tramain Jacobs to give the Aggies a 44-10 lead over the Razorbacks with 7:06 remaining in the third quarter. Arkansas never truly threatened in the second half, but after that scoop and score by Jacobs, it seemed that any hope Arkansas had of getting back into the game washed away.
Game ball goes to: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. He has been impressive in his first three starts for the Aggies, and his fourth was even more so. The redshirt freshman set school records for passing yards (453) and total offense (557). He was 29-of-38 passing, threw for three touchdowns and ran for 104 more yards and another TD. He broke Ryan Tannehill's school passing record of 449 yards and Jerrod Johnson's total offense record of 487. Most importantly, Manziel had no turnovers and hasn't committed one yet this season.
Game ball, Part 2: The Texas A&M defense. The Aggies trailed 10-7 after a quarter, but the Razorbacks didn't score again. Arkansas moved the ball plenty, finishing with 515 total yards, but it didn't equate to points. The Aggies' red zone defense was outstanding, as Arkansas finished 1-of-5 in that department. Steven Terrell had two key interceptions to help lead the D.
Rising star: Texas A&M running back Ben Malena. The junior got his third straight start and was effective in his limited touches, gaining 59 rushing yards on eight carries and catching an 11-yard touchdown pass from Manziel. He's a good contrast to Christine Michael, who is effective between the tackles and more of a north-south runner. Malena is good in the passing game and the running game and has the speed to make big plays. Honorable mention to true freshman receiver Thomas Johnson, who caught five passes for 108 yards, although 88 of them came on two plays in the fourth quarter.
What it means: The Aggies are a different ballclub from a year ago, clearly. They led Arkansas last season by 18 points at the half, and on Saturday they led by 17. Last year, they fell 42-38. This year, they continued to score and blew out the Razorbacks. This is an explosive offense with an aggressive mentality and a ton of playmakers, coupled with a defense that appears to be much better than it was expected to be in the preseason.
For the Razorbacks, this season is slipping away quickly. Now, one must wonder whether Arkansas will even make it to a bowl game. The Razorbacks looked wholly defeated in the second half, and though they kept fighting, their efforts were futile. It already has been a long season in Fayetteville, Ark., and it looks as if it will continue to be.
Stat of the half: Texas A&M has rolled up 409 total offensive yards. The Aggies really got rolling in the second quarter, putting 20 points on the board and 230 offensive yards up in that 15-minute span alone. They've rolled up all of that in just 14:04 time of possession.
Player of the half: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. He continues to make big plays both with his arm and his feet. He dazzled the crowd with a 52-yard run in the first quarter and has made some nice throws for touchdowns, including one that hit senior receiver Ryan Swope in stride for an 80-yard touchdown pass to give the Aggies a 27-10 lead with 2:31 left in the first half.
What’s working for the Aggies: The passing game has been on point (Manziel is 18-of-24 for 261 yards and three touchdowns), and the running game has been productive as well. Junior running back Ben Malena, who got his third consecutive start, has 55 rushing yards and an 11-yard touchdown reception.
What’s working for the Razorbacks: Anything to Cobi Hamilton and Knile Davis. Tyler Wilson has found Hamilton, the senior receiver eight times for 85 yards, and Davis has 124 combined rushing and receiving yards and the Razorbacks' lone touchdown. Davis had trouble finding running room in short-yardage situations a couple of times, and Wilson will have to do a better job of finding receivers. He's gone 16-of-26 passing but has an interception that eventually turned into a touchdown the other way for the Aggies' offense.
What Texas A&M needs to do to win: The Aggies need to continue to be aggressive. This is a familiar spot for them -- they were up by 18 points on the Razorbacks a year ago and lost 42-38. Look for Texas A&M to keep the pedal to the metal on offense. Defensively, we'll see if the Aggies can put a better performance than they did a year ago.
What Arkansas needs to do to win: Take care of the ball and do a better job on third down. The Hogs started out by converting three of their first four third downs, but they're just 2-of-8 since. That has given the Aggies more offensive opportunities. Perhaps feeding Davis and finding ways for him to get in space will help them in the second half.
As a freshman, he took over punting duties seven games into the year. As a sophomore, he appeared in nine games before an injury interrupted his season. As a junior he won a battle in fall camp to earn the job and did so again this year as a senior.
He sits behind only Houston's Richie Leone (48.7) and Utah's Sean Sellwood (47.8) through the early portion of the season.
But not all of his punts have been boomers. He has had a few that weren't hit as well as he wanted, but he has been fortunate enough to get some favorable bounces. He's trying to eliminate those not-so-great punts and become more consistent.
"The stats are definitely great," Epperson said. "Whenever I am connecting with the ball it’s traveling pretty well and that’s a great confidence booster. I obviously don’t want to go out there and hit those rollers, so I’m just trying to work on turning over every single ball in the game and eliminating those rolls of the side of my foot. Like I said, whenever I do make good contact I’m getting some pretty good hang time. I’m just trying to force those catches so the recovering team doesn’t have to do much."
So far, when it comes to defending punt returns, the Aggies are doing well in that department. They've only had three punts returned against them so far for a total of six yards, an average of two yards per return. The Aggies are tied for 14th nationally in that statistic.
"I think the net punting average is excellent," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "One of the tops in the country and our coverage has been very, very good."
This fall, Epperson competed with sophomore Drew Kaser during fall camp before eventually winning the job. Epperson said he focused on what Sumlin and special teams coordinator Brian Polian wanted from him -- consistency.
"I just try to stay as consistent as I can throughout camp after I’ve been able do most of these camps," Epperson said. "A big thing Coach Sumlin and Coach Polian were wanting is coverage punts. They wanted four-second hangs and 30+ yards. In the SEC, you don’t want to give the punt returner a chance to return the ball at all. Really, our goal every game is having that average of 39 yards. Every game they are asking for a net of 39 and I was able to give a consistent 40, 45 yard ball with great hang time, which definitely helps out the coverage units and that’s what they like most about my punting."
Texas A&M is second in the country in net punting with a 47.2 yard net average. Only Texas (49.4) ranks higher.
As the Aggies continue their SEC schedule this Saturday against Arkansas, Epperson is aware of how critical his role will be.
"In the SEC, I think field position is definitely a key factor in winning the game," he said. "Some of the best punters reside in the SEC. I’m just trying to help A&M get good field position whenever the offense can’t get a first down. It will definitely help us win some games this season."
The Aggies and Razorbacks have met each of the last three years, and in all three meetings, the Razorbacks came up with the win. That includes last season when the Aggies led by 18 points at halftime, only to be on the receiving end of a 42-38 defeat. So needless to say, there's an emphasis by the Aggies on Saturday's game, particularly from the seniors who have yet to count a win over the Razorbacks on their resume and would like to add one.
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Long gone is the top-10 national ranking and the talk of possible BCS title contention. That has been replaced by speculation about who the next coach might be and whether the Razorbacks (1-3) will even make a bowl game after dropping three consecutive games to Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama and Rutgers.
It's still early in the season and the Aggies (2-1) are preparing for just their second Southeastern Conference game. In their first SEC tilt, they put up a respectable showing against then-No. 24 Florida, a team that is now 4-0 and 11th in the rankings.
The Aggies didn't win that game -- falling 20-17 -- but showed that they could compete with a quality SEC team. When they meet the Razorbacks on Saturday, it will be A&M's first SEC West Division game. In reality, it might be too early to call anything a "must-win" but if the Aggies are to earn the respect they seek from those in SEC country, let alone nationally, that means winning games in situations like these: a home game versus a struggling ballclub against whom they're favored.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin warns that because the Razorbacks are struggling, it could make them tough to deal with.
"They're coming in here, they've got a lot to prove," Sumlin said. "The old deal, 'A wounded animal may be the most dangerous one,' I think it applies in this case. But we've got a lot to play for too."
The Aggies do have plenty at stake. For starters, they'd like to notch that first SEC win, something they expected to do against Florida. If they have their sights set on a bowl game -- or beyond -- a win Saturday would help immensely, because the schedule doesn't get any easier.
TAMU Asst. Tops Recruiter Power Rankings
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin