The Texas A&M football team’s run defense had a few uncharacteristic leaks in last week’s 24-17 Southeastern Conference victory at Ole Miss.
The Aggies had not allowed more than two runs of at least 20 yards in each of the previous 19 games under Jimbo Fisher, but the Rebels reeled off runs of 27, 36, 38 and 69 yards. Dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and a trio of tailbacks helped Ole Miss rush for 250 yards, the most allowed by A&M since LSU had 250 in a 45-21 victory in the 2017 regular-season finale.
Ole Miss took a 7-3 lead on a 69-yard touchdown run by Jerrion Ealy, who took advantage of a defensive end out of position and two missed tackle attempts. The Rebels later took a 14-10 lead on their opening possession in the third quarter with the big play a 38-yard run up the middle by Scottie Phillips.
“We’ve got two guys perfectly there to make the play,” Fisher said. “We just fit it wrong, one gap over. Is it easily fixed? Yes.”
A&M junior linebacker Buddy Johnson had a team-high 10 tackles and returned a fumble 62 yards for a touchdown that gave the Aggies the lead for good, but he said he was out of position a few times.
“Everyone sees the things that we do right, but no one sees the things that we do wrong,” Johnson said. “So we just have to get in the film room and correct the small things, and we’ll be just fine.”
A&M (4-3, 2-2) will be facing another true freshman dual-threat quarterback Saturday in Mississippi State’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound Garrett Shrader, who has rushed for 342 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries over the last four games.
“[Shrader] is an athletic, big, strong guy,” Fisher said. “He can make plays, and the offensive line is a big, physical group.”
Mississippi State (3-4, 1-3) ranks 51st nationally in rushing with 179.1 yards per game, but the Bulldogs averaged only 113.7 in the last three games, losses to Auburn 56-23, Tennessee 20-10 and LSU 36-13.
“I thought we were improved from Tennessee but not necessarily where we need to be from a run game perspective,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “To get the run game headed back where we need to be, we have to play with the same kind of effort but create a little more push up front.”
Fisher said Mississippi State’s spread offense relies on more physical running inside than Ole Miss’ offense.
Mississippi State junior running back Kylin Hill opened the season with four straight 100-yard games but has been limited to 92 yards on 43 carries (2.1 average) in the three-game losing streak.
“I want as much as anybody for him to be able to come out and rush for 150 or 200 yards per game,” Moorhead said. “Right now, I feel much more comfortable that if [the running game] is getting shut down that we will work to get it going. You also have to be able to pass the ball with confidence, efficiency and effectiveness. I think we are growing towards that.”
The 215-pound Hill missed the A&M game last season because of a lower-body injury. He rushed for 734 yards (6.3 average) in 11 starts with four touchdowns last season, gaining 472 of those yards after contact. A&M had the nation’s third-best run defense last season, allowing 95.2 yards per game — 1,238 total. Opponents already have rushed for 947, and Shrader and Hill will be trying to exploit a defense that’s given up 696 yards rushing in the last four games (174 per game).
Shrader has a tough act to follow in former Mississippi State dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who beat A&M the last three seasons. Fitzgerald rushed for 375 yards and five TDs on 54 carries in those games, while completing 44 of 74 passes for 591 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions.
NOTES — Kansas State’s Devin Anctil was named the Ray Guy Award’s punter of the week Tuesday, earning the award over seven others including A&M All-American Braden Mann. Anctil averaged 49 yards on seven punts with no returns and no touchbacks in a 24-17 victory over TCU. Mann averaged 52.2 yards on five punts in A&M’s win at Ole Miss. ... Fisher’s weekly radio show will broadcast live on WTAW (1620 AM, 94.5 FM) at 7-8 p.m. Wednesday from Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q.