Alabama A&M was, in many ways, a perfect early season opponent. For those who do not like cupcake games, I can say only that this game gave a lot of young guys big reasons to see themselves as a real part of the team. It also gave the coaches good insights into which younger guys might get plugged in successfully later in the year. The play where Jared Pinkney's little brother, Jalen, recovered an Andrew Rector blocked punt and almost had a TD was a truly a heartwarming sideline reaction. Later, Dare Odeyingo's little brother, Dayo ,broke up a pass and made a spectacular INT with a similar result. It was a good confidence builder - and teams need confidence builders.
A&M played hard and tried hard - but they were over-matched. CDM politely held the score to 7-0 in the second half. This was not like taking the foot off the pedal last week (against a dangerous opponent) - this was basically good sportsmanship.
He did a similar thing a few years ago in a game versus Austin Peay which ended with a similar score. The big difference there was that we were busy exploiting advantages in that game - Sherfield ended up with 19 catches as I recall. Yesterday, we simply performed a surgical clinic in the first half - we did not have to resort to exploiting weaknesses. That first half grades out, any way you look at it, as an A. And that is basically all you can ask. Sure - I can pick on the 4th and one stuff and the failure to get a turnover in that half (although we did block kicks). But we ran our offense. We ran wide some, we threw well, we used play action that worked brilliantly and there was not a bad throw among them. The 45-yard TD this week was a missile. Shurmur was 12 for 12 in the half - for 175 yards. He was 13 of 14 for the second week in a row. We led in first downs 13-3 and yards 291-38 at half time. No punts. Two straight games with three or more throwing TDs. No turnovers.
Offensively, we have weapons. Pinkney, Lipscomb, Webb, Blasingame, Sherfield - all guys the other team needs to worry about. Wakefield made his debut - and it was solid. While we came out of the game essentially injury-free, it is hard to know whether Webb was mainly resting - or if he tweaked the ankle? At any rate - it was a good offensive outing. I wish I could say the fourth down stuff showed the brain-trust that even over matched teams can stop the predictable run up the middle when it is telegraphed? - but the response was a third down bootleg TD the next series. Mrs. Roanoke, I must admit, called this play - and I assured her it would not happen.
Shurmur was really great yesterday - but again, there was not a lot of defense. The gauntlet begins next week - and we will see what we really have. At the same time, as many predicted, MTSU took down Syracuse on the road last night. Our manhandling of the Blue Raiders was not an accident and we have to feel pretty good about ourselves heading into the meat of the schedule.
The defense was equally good - we outgained A&M 401 to 103. A&M eclipsed the century mark in the closing minute. Our core defense was simply excellent. There was no separation on the corners and that left very little passing game. Emmanuel Smith was all over the field. Burks, White, Wright, Odeyingbo made their presence felt again. Sheffield and Rector got into the action as well - and Lealao (in the Adam Butler tradition) made a big difference in the middle while not packing enormous stats. Several younger guys - Odeyingbo, Griffin, Jones looked good too. Let's face it: A&M had only 7 first downs, two by penalty.
Special teams were interesting. Again, like last week - all the kickoffs were in the end zone and that is a big deal. Openshaw's best kick of the game was a field goal that he missed off the cross bar at 56 yards. He would have made it from 55. He did pull a couple of PATs, but they went through. Special teams blocked two kicks - one would have been a TD (but the guys were so happy at the jailbreak that they failed to block the one defender in the area who prevented a TD.) A&M had another fumbled punt where the ball dropped between five gold shirts - and we managed to punch the ball out of bounds rather than recover it. Basically, the staff can find things to pick on in the upcoming week - but, honestly, they will have to look for them. We should be pretty happy with ourselves through two games. We have a solid offense and a solid defense. There are usually very few teams that can truly say that. And they usually do pretty well.
I am taking the week off from being bothered by the "between the hashes" mentality - but the staff did use a few misdirections early and seems to be expanding the bag of tricks. Ironically, if one were looking for a cloud, it might be that we still are not running between the tackles as well as we'd like: this problem being compounded by the fact that we do it so often. With the gauntlet on the horizon, our staff may open up to thoughts outside the hashes by necessity. If so, the fourth down stuff by A&M's defense may be a blessing in disguise.
Our back-up QBs did not get to do as much as I would have liked - because of the sportsmanship thing. We were not trying to run up the score - but we did end up punting our last four possessions. Hard to know what Wallace and Stankavage will bring - but both looked competent.
While the defense's o-fer on third down conversions was broken early - we did hold A&M to 2 of 14. That means we have held opponents to 2 of 26 for the year. If we are not first in the nation, I'd like to know who is. Of course, with the gauntlet now arrived - we can forget about stats entirely. Kansas State and Bama had pretty good stats too - en route to winning their games by a combined tally of 96-17.
Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face." We have not really been punched hard yet this season and it will be interesting to see how we deliver under pressure. The staff has to be happy with what they have seen so far. I know I am.