Texas A&M defense on hunt for more sacks, turnovers

September 26, 2018

Texas A&M’s defense needs to do a better job getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers if the Aggies expect to have success in the Southeastern Conference.

With one turnover and five sacks, A&M (2-2) is on pace to have its worst season in both categories since joining the SEC in 2012. A&M ranks 125th in the country in turnovers gained, tied with East Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona and Coastal Carolina for the fewest turnovers in the country.

“Turnovers are great momentum swings for the game,” sophomore A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike said. “They can almost cause you a win or loss. You just have to keep going and keep finding that ball and keep punching it out and keep stripping it out.”

Madubuike has the team’s only forced fumble. The Aggie defense’s only turnover was an interception by junior linebacker Larry Pryor against Louisiana-Monroe. ULM’s receiver beat the cornerback on the play, but Warhawks quarterback Caleb Evans put too much air on the throw, allowing Pryor to make the interception.

Other than that, A&M has had few chances at turnovers. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 75 of 123 passes for 1,168 yards with eight touchdowns. Opposing players have put the ball on the ground only four times in 225 combined offensive and special teams plays, and the opposing teams recovered all four.

A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said his defenders have to be more fundamentally sound and that the secondary has been caught looking in the backfield, allowing receivers to get separation.

“You have to cover guys and be in place to make [plays],” Fisher said. “When you’re tackling, it’s hard to strip a ball when you’re playing from behind and not closing ground to make those [plays].”

Fisher said tighter coverage will lead to better tackling, increasing the chances for turnovers. A&M daily has turnover drills, and the players believe the turnovers will come.

“The main thing for sure is that we can work hard in creating more turnovers,” A&M junior cornerback Charles Oliver said. “We have zero picks right now, which is something we need to change. We look at this week as a chance to do that.”

The Aggies last season recovered six fumbles by quarterbacks and four by wide receivers. A&M has forced only one quarterback into a fumble this season — Madubuike got the ball from Alabama’s Jalen Hurts on a running play. Clemson’s Kelly Bryant also fumbled, but that came on a running play.

Last week in a 45-23 loss to top-ranked Alabama, sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa completed 22 of 30 passes for 387 yards and four touchdowns for the Crimson Tide. He had four passes gain at least 30 yards as he often had enough time to throw to his second or third option.

“We didn’t create enough pressure on the passer with our pass rush,” Fisher said.

While opposing quarterbacks for the most part have stayed upright against A&M, opposing defenses have 14 sacks and forced five turnovers, three of them by the quarterbacks.

Those numbers are somewhat skewed because A&M has played Alabama and second-ranked Clemson, which combined for four turnovers and 11 sacks while also not allowing a sack or a turnover.

Fisher said his team psychologically should be able to build on its efforts against Clemson and Alabama because the Aggies showed they physically could compete against the nation’s best. They made many plays and were in position to make more.

Since joining the SEC, A&M has played a pair of ranked teams in the first four games only one other time, defeating 16th-ranked UCLA and 17th-ranked Arkansas in 2016. The last time A&M played two Top 10 teams in the first month of the season was 1987 when the Aggies opened with a 17-3 loss to sixth-ranked LSU and defeated 10th-ranked Washington 29-12 the next week en route to winning a Southwest Conference championship.

A&M’s defense has a much more favorable matchup this week with Arkansas. The Razorbacks (1-3) have lost three straight games in part because of turnovers (10) and sacks allowed (eight).

A&M sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond, who threw two interceptions against Alabama that led to 10 points last week, expects his defense to put him and the offense in good position to score Saturday against the Razorbacks.

“I’m looking forward to the defense getting back on track this weekend and having another great week,” Mond said.

There were two pivotal turnovers in last year’s 50-43 A&M victory over Arkansas. Arkansas scored after a Mond interception to take the game’s biggest lead at 21-14. But A&M safety Armani Watts ended the game with an interception in overtime on third-and-8 from the A&M 12-yard line when Watts cut in front of intended receiver Cheyenne O’Grady, who was blanketed by two other defenders.

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