COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Before Saturday night, a Kevin Sumlin-coached team never went into the halftime locker room without points on the board.
Ole Miss observed the old “there is a first time for everything” adage while holding Texas A&M scoreless in the first two quarters of a 35-20 win over the Aggies at Kyle Field. It was the first time a team coached by Sumlin, who is in his seventh season as a head coach, had zero points at halftime.
It served as a microcosm of what the last two weeks have been like for a usually high-powered offense.
“There were a number of times today where we just got whipped,” Sumlin said flatly after Saturday’s game. “It's kind of hard to fix that.”
The Aggies have sputtered in losses to Ole Miss and Mississippi State. They even had their share of issues in the first three quarters of their Sept. 27 overtime win over Arkansas before getting in sync in the fourth quarter and overtime. Through three quarters against Ole Miss, the Aggies had seven points. The previous week, it was 17 through three. Against Arkansas, it was 14 points heading into the fourth.
There have been a myriad of reasons for the struggles, from wide receiver drops to inaccurate throws to an ineffective running game. Offensive line play doesn't seem to be what it was the last two seasons, either. Turnovers have been a large part of the problem as well, as the Aggies have committed six in their two losses. On Saturday, two of those turnovers were returned for touchdowns by Ole Miss -- one interception and one fumble return.
“That's my fault,” quarterback Kenny Hill said Saturday. “I had three turnovers [vs. Ole Miss] and two of them went for touchdowns. We can't win like that. That's on me.”
Hill is correct, but he isn’t the sole culprit. The interception that Cody Prewitt returned for a touchdown saw Hill feeling pressure courtesy of Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who had beaten left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to get in Hill’s face just as he released the football. Hill felt harassment against Mississippi State and Arkansas as well.
Dropped passes were a serious issue against Mississippi State the previous week. The Aggies had nine, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the most by a Power 5 team in four seasons, but Sumlin and his staff were harsher in his grading of that game, giving the Aggies 11. Drops didn’t creep up as a major issue vs. Ole Miss but were a concern against Arkansas, too.
“It's a number that we aren't proud of,” said senior receiver Malcome Kennedy, who missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. “[Receivers coach David Beaty] always says 'One dropped ball is too many,’ and it makes perfect sense, that is too many.”
The absence of Kennedy hasn’t helped matters. He suffered a separated shoulder late against Arkansas, sat out briefly and returned to finish the game with a game-winning touchdown reception in overtime but has been unable to go the last two weeks after testing the shoulder in warmups.
That has disrupted the flow of the offense because Kennedy was leading the team in receptions at the time of his injury. He is a vocal leader and Hill, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have indicated that Kennedy means an immense amount to the offense.
The Aggies tried to get their running game going early against Ole Miss, but the Rebels were having none of it. A&M finished with 54 yards on 35 carries, a measly 1.5-yards per carry average.
So what do the Aggies do?
"You're always analyzing where you are,” Sumlin said. “When things are going good you're analyzing and you're analyzing when things are going bad and not the way you want them to, [too]. So that's kind of where we are right now.
“As a team, you're always looking to get better and fix problems. Sometimes when you're winning those things are glossed over, but as a coach, you have to be honest with your schemes and honest with yourself. Really, that was the message to players and coaches. Right now is a time where you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and look for and be honest with the deficiencies that have been presented and then be able to fix those during the week or adjust during the week.”
The Aggies’ season-opening win at South Carolina -- which looked much better that day than it does now, knowing what we know about the Gamecocks -- caused many to believe that the Aggies wouldn’t miss a beat after the departure of three of the best offensive players in the program’s history: Quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
What these last two weeks have illustrated is that it is difficult to replace players of that caliber, especially with the type of youth the Aggies are operating with. For all the hype he received early on, it’s easy to forget that Hill just made his seventh career start. The same applies for others such as receivers Speedy Noil or Ricky Seals-Jones, two key members of the talented but young group of receivers.
It might take time to fix some of the issues that have crept up, but that’s something the Aggies don’t have much of currently, because a trip to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama looms on Saturday. If the Aggies want any chance of repeating the success they had in their last trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium, their offensive woes will have to be cured quickly.