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Golden: After Arkansas loss, Texas A&M Aggies offense is going south in a hurry

Aggies host Mississippi State and Alabama over the next two weeks.

  • Texas A&M managed only 272 yards in a listless offensive performance.
  • Offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Zach Calzada.

ARLINGTON — They say defense wins championships, but when your offense produces just 10 more points than a dead man, it doesn’t matter how many stops you get.

Texas A&M has major problems on offense, and a quick fix doesn’t exist. Kevin Murray, Reggie McNeal, Johnny Manziel and Kellen Mond don’t live here anymore, and coach Jimbo Fisher must make do with sophomore Zach Calzada, whose first year has been uneven, to say the least.

Fisher talked of self-inflicted wounds and missed opportunities after a head-scratching 20-10 loss to an upstart group of Hogs who have fattened up on Texas opposition in 2021.

If this were 30 years ago, Arkansas would be sitting pretty atop the Southwest Conference after double-digit wins over Rice, Texas and A&M, but it will have to settle for bragging rights in 2021. The latest win broke a nine-game losing skid to the Aggies, whose fan base will have to set aside any College Football Playoff aspirations after this first loss, though A&M can get back into the conversation with wins over Mississippi State and top-ranked Alabama these next two weeks.

Good luck with that double.

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Texas A&M quarterback Zach Calzada slips and falls as offensive lineman Kenyon Green helps against pressure from Arkansas edge rusher Tre Williams in Saturday's 20-10 loss at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.  The Aggies managed only 272 yards in their first loss of the season.

While their fans mugged for the video board cameras at Jerry World by alternating between the Horns Down and thumbs down — taunts aimed at their former SWC brethren —  the Razorbacks outmuscled Texas A&M and exposed an offense that just hasn’t shown an ability move the ball consistently through the first third of the season.

Sam Pittman is a coach’s coach who has taken the early lead in national coach of the year discussions after leading the Hogs to their first 4-0 start in 18 seasons. His team laid the wood to the Longhorns two weeks ago and showed it was no fluke by bullying the Aggies in old-school Southwest Conference style, with a stout running game and a sure-tackling defense that kept A&M scrambling for four quarters.

As the Aggies walked dejectedly off the AT&T Stadium field, Arkansas players celebrated with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his vice president/son Stephen in the north end zone. It was the first time the Joneses — a pair of Arkansas alums —  had been spotted with any trophy of note in 25 years.

The Hogs played hard-nosed, run-heavy football, and while they didn’t set the world on fire in the second half with only three points, it was more than enough against the Aggies, who never fully recovered from that first-half onslaught.

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After Arkansas went 3-7 last season, coach Sam Pittman, applauding his team in Saturday's win over Texas A&M, has the Razorbacks off to their first 4-0 start in 18 seasons.

Arkansas’ first four plays from scrimmage went for 16, 15, 12 and 23 yards. Running back Trelon Smith’s 15-yard run was called back because of holding, but the gauntlet was effectively laid down.

Quarterback KJ Jefferson was better than he was against Texas before a leg injury slowed him early in the third quarter, but his 85-yard scoring bomb to Treylon Burks on Arkansas’ second possession sent a message that these Hogs, while quite familiar rosterwise with last season’s 3-7 all-SEC schedule, are a far different group when it comes to the results that matter most.

Fisher looked bewildered when I asked him about the improvement from that Fayetteville bunch. Arkansas started 18 upperclassmen, and many were on the business end of last season’s 42-31 loss to the Aggies that would have been much worse had they not scored a couple of fourth-quarter TDs in garbage time.

“It’s the same guys since I’ve been here,” Fisher said with a semi-frustrated chuckle. 

Same guys, different result. 

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Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, studying his notes during Saturday's 20-10 loss to Arkansas, was frustrated by his team's inability to generate offense.

The Aggies certainly don’t have the same guy under center. Former four-year starter Kellen Mond is now with the Minnesota Vikings, and Haynes King, who won the starting job in the preseason, is on the shelf with a leg injury. 

That leaves Calzada, who was harassed, harried and hit all day long behind an offensive line that really struggled to keep him in the pocket for most of the day. Edge rusher Tre Wiliams gave A&M blockers fits all day with a pair of sacks and several hurries, some of which came on a three-man rush. Just like in their win over Texas, the Hogs were able to get good pressure even when they rushed three and dropped eight into pass coverage.

Calzada, reduced to a check-down master, completed 20 of 36 passes for 151 yards and an interception that came after he bounced a pass off the helmet of center Bryce Foster.

“We had (deep throws) called, but we didn’t have time,” Fisher said when asked about the lack of a vertical attack. “The way they play, they take the deep ball away from you. We had six deep balls called.”

In today’s game, a team that gives up 20 points can usually book it as a win, but Saturday that wasn’t the case. Jefferson’s injury helped slow the Hogs, but it all went for naught because A&M had little juice on offense. The A&M offense was pretty offensive for most of the day. Aside from Isaiah Spiller’s 67-yard touchdown sprint to cut the deficit to seven points midway through the third quarter, the Aggies managed only 205 yards of offense on the other 58 plays from scrimmage, a comatose 3.5 yards per play.

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It made the defense’s improved play in the second half — Arkansas scored only three points — a stat of little concession. It goes down as the second time this season the Aggies have been held to 10 points or fewer. It last happened twice in 2019 in a pair of losses — 24-10 and 50-7 to two No. 1s, Clemson and LSU. The latter came against a juggernaut that went on to win the national championship.

This time last year, the Hogs weren’t in any danger of being confused with a CFP contender, but who knows after this latest showing?

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There’s plenty of football left, but the Aggies will have to make do with the same beaten-up offensive line and the same quarterback, unless they want to open up a competition between Calzada and Blake Bost, a walk-on from Port Neches.

That fact that I even mentioned Bost’s name is testament to the rising level of concern in College Station.

The points aren’t coming, and it’s entirely possible with this schedule that things could go south in a hurry.