During Texas A&M’s hot start to the 2016 season, one of the notable differences between this year’s team and its recent predecessors was its ability to slow down opponents’ rushing attacks.
Through the five games, the Aggies were off to a better start than in either 2014 or 2015 in that regard, despite facing a tougher schedule to start 2016.
In recent weeks, that success has been harder to come by. Texas A&M allowed season highs in rushing yards in consecutive games: 282 to Tennessee in a Week 6 win and 287 to Alabama in a 33-14 loss on Saturday.
It raises an obvious question: Were the last two games an aberration against two ranked opponents, or were they a warning sign that the Aggies are regressing?
The answer will come in the season’s final five weeks.
The Aggies currently are roughly in the middle of the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (201.8, ninth in the league) and yards allowed per rush (4.37, eighth) against Power 5 conference competition.
But even before the Aggies hosted Tennessee, a team that was undefeated and ranked in the top 10 when it visited Kyle Field on Oct. 8, the Aggies were starting to trend in the wrong direction. The defense had allowed 4.6 yards per rush to South Carolina in a 24-13 road win over the Gamecocks on Oct. 1. And at the time, that was the most yards per rush the Aggies had allowed all season. Those numbers jumped to 5.53 yards allowed per rush to Tennessee and 5.04 to No. 1 Alabama.
Following the performance vs. Tennessee, Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis attributed the Volunteers' high yardage total, in part, to poor tackling. “There were some things I could have done better last week,” Chavis said. “There are some things that I’m going to do better and there are some plays that we’ve got to make. We have to be a better tackling football team.”
It wasn’t just against Tennessee that tackling was a concern. In the Aggies’ first three games this season against Power 5 opponents (UCLA, Auburn and Arkansas), the Aggies tackled well, allowing only 1.69 yards per rush after first contact.
But in the last three games (South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama) the Aggies have allowed that number to increase to 2.48 yards per rush after first contact. That means they aren’t doing as good a job of getting the ballcarrier down once they get their hands on him. For the season, the Aggies are 10th in the SEC in yards per rush allowed after first contact (2.1) to Power 5 opponents. LSU leads the league in the category (1.12), and South Carolina is last (2.41).
Those numbers can add up quickly. Assuming an opponent rushes 40 times in a game, the Aggies' solid early-season yards after contact average (1.69) would equate to an additional 67 rushing yards allowed in a game. Their average of the last three weeks (2.49) increases that number to an additional 99 yards. That extra yardage can make a difference in an opponent's ability to make first downs and keep drives alive.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the negative trend began about the same time the Aggies' best defensive player, defensive end Myles Garrett, was injured. A lower-leg injury suffered in the second half of a late-September win over Arkansas caused him to miss the South Carolina game and play only limited snaps vs. Tennessee (he played more vs. Alabama).
And the competition level also is worth considering. Alabama is the SEC leader vs. Power 5 opponents in rushing yards per game, second in yards per rush (6.35) and tied for third (with Texas A&M) in yards per rush after first contact (2.12).
Tennessee and South Carolina, however, rank no better than seventh in the SEC in any of those categories.
For the Aggies, these issues are unlikely to make a significant difference in the result of two of their final five games, as they’ll meet a Group of 5 conference opponent this weekend (New Mexico State) and on Nov. 19 (UTSA). It may not even play a huge role vs. Ole Miss on Nov. 12, as the Rebels are in the bottom half of the league in rushing, though much more talented than the Aggies’ remaining nonconference foes.
But if Texas A&M has plans to finish the season by winning the remainder of its games, that means the Aggies will have to reverse this trend before LSU, with Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, comes to Kyle Field on Thanksgiving night.