“It was the best of times it was the worst of times.” That is how Charles Dickens began his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities.
Why did we start off our defensive breakdown with a quote from a book published in 1859, you ask? Because, for the defense, the Texas A&M game was a tale of two halves.
Texas A&M came into the season with a new head coach, new offense and a new quarterback, all unknowns to the Gators as they traveled into College Station to take on the Aggies in front of what was probably the most hostile crowd that Florida would face all season. Kevin Sumlin had made a name for himself at Houston with a spread offense that would beat teams by throwing quick passes all over the field. In his four seasons as the head coach at Houston, his teams threw an average of 48.7, 40.3, 53.1 and 46.7 times a game while twice throwing more passes in a season than any other team in the country.
Surely he would bring the same fun n’ gun style to Texas A&M, right?
With Hurricane Isaac postponing the Aggies first game, Will Muschamp and the Gators went into their week two matchup essentially blind. Florida played a very conservative style of defense while they tried to feel out what Sumlin and his redshirt freshman quarterback were going to do.
While Florida adjusted to what Sumlin was dialing up on offense, the Aggies took advantage and torched the Gators for 270 yards and 17 points in the first half. A&M averaged 11.5 plays, 67.5 yards and had an average drive length of 3:45 in the first half. That time of possession per drive included a 1:49 drive that was only ended by time running out at the end of the half. Johnny Manziel – who had yet to transform into ‘Johnny Football’ – looked every bit of the eventual Heisman winner he would become.
In his first ever college football game, Manziel was throwing with confidence and eluding defenders when he took off to run with the football. It didn’t take long for Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit to start gushing over the 19-year old rookie signal caller, and deservedly so. He was making one of the best defenses in the country look pedestrian, at best, and the only thing that stopped him was the clock. Texas A&M had four possessions in the first half and scored on three of them. If not for poor clock management, the Aggies looked poised to be able to drive on Florida and put more points on the board in the second quarter.
Needless to say, Muschamp’s defense needed to make adjustments and make them fast. In what would become a trend during the 2012 season, Florida walked into the locker room at halftime and like Clark Kent walking into a phone booth, would come out as Superman.
The Gators adjustments were perfect. They changed their aggressive style and played a contain defense. Florida blitzed seven times in the first half. While the Gators were able to get pressure by blitzing, Manziel was able to scramble and make plays on the fly. Rather than continue blitzing Manziel, the Gators backed off. Florida didn’t bring more than four pass-rushers in the second half. They played nickel exclusively to get more speed on the field and kept one linebacker to spy on the quarterback, while the other played a shallow zone to take away those short passes over the middle that had been so successful in the first half.
The locker room tinkering worked to perfection. The Aggies had six drives in the second half but were kept off of the scoreboard and went three-and-out on half of their six offensive drives. A&M’s average plays per drive dropped from 11.5 in the first half to just 3.8 in the second half. They averaged just 8.6 yards-per-drive and held on to the ball for a measly average of 1:45 on those six attempts.
Florida did what only one other team the rest of the season would do; they contained Manziel and held him to a season low 233 offensive yards. 207 of those yards came in the first half.
Florida solved the Manziel puzzle. The argument that it was Manziel’s first game is invalid when you look at how well he played in the first half based on his second half performance.
When asked at SEC media days what was different about the Florida defense, Manziel said he didn’t remember much about the game, that it was all a blur. He did, however, credit Florida for having one of the fastest defenses he would play during his Heisman campaign.
He could have credited them for having one of the smartest defenses and a coach who was able to make the necessary adjustments to stop one of the most dynamic players in college football in his tracks.