Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher was running out of chances last year and he most assuredly knew it. Therefore, the once highly respected offensive coach turned to a face very familiar in the region. So far, it seems to be working.
Football fans near and far were a bit surprised when Fisher handed off the reigns of his offense by hiring Bobby Petrino as offensive coordinator. Petrino is well known for his time as a head coach at Louisville, Arkansas and a season with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL. The results – on and off the field – were mixed at those stops.
Before Fisher plucked Petrino from Missouri State, the Aggies ranked ranked 12th in the SEC in average yards per game (361.2) and 13th in the SEC in points scored with 22.8 points per game. That, by any standard, wasn’t good. It was especially bad for Fisher, a coach that was supposed to lead Texas A&M to national relevance and, perhaps, a championship of some sorts. Instead, Fisher had led the Aggies to a 39-21 record and a paltry 23-18 mark in the SEC before hiring Petrino. Now, the Aggies are 4-2 and 2-1 in the SEC. However, the early returns on Petrino are better than just the record.
Texas A&M is now fourth in the SEC with 35.5 points scored per game and sixth in the conference with 420 yards per game in total offense. That’s certainly a sign that things are going in the right direction.
“They’re a physical group,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said when asked to preview what his crew will face when the Vols host the Aggies in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. “They want to run the ball downhill. They have a pretty healthy amount of running backs that are interchangeable that they’ll bring in there.
“You don’t see a lot of two-back run games from a lot of people and those guys have the ability to get into some two-back situations. They’ll try to ‘out-gap’ you with a true fullback. It’s a tough scheme to get ready for, particularly in this day and age of football because you don’t see a lot of that. We know we’re going to have our hands full and we’ll need every single practice to be able to get ready for it.”
In other words, Petrino is going old school. Instead of four receivers, think of a blocking fullback. Instead of aggressive, think ball control. In other words, think of Petrino’s old offenses in which he was one of the first to incorporate a highly effective, pro-style offense into the college game. Petrino’s current offense is led by Max Johnson, the son of longtime NFL quarterback Brad Johnson. The younger Johnson replaced Conner Weigman, who was injured against Auburn on Sept. 23. Johnson’s 151 quarterback ranking is eighth-best in the SEC.
“No, I think they’re the same,” Banks said when asked if he sees much difference since the forced substitution at quarterback. “Honestly, I knew the quarterback got hurt, but I didn’t realize how many snaps Johnson has played in his career. I mean, this kid is a veteran. He’s extremely poised.
“They’re running their offense and some of the plays that he’s made under duress just kind of speak to his confidence and the confidence they have in him as a quarterback. I don’t think they’ve really missed a beat. I think that they’ve tried to play to his strengths. He’s a lefty. But at the end of the day, I think they’re very similar.”
The experienced lefty transferred from LSU where he was known for holding onto the ball a bit too long. If that’s still the case, it could certainly play into Tennessee’s favor. The Vols are first in the SEC and second in the nation with 4.4 sacks per game this season after averaging just 2.39 sacks per game last season.
“That was an area that we knew we needed to improve on,” Banks said. “So yeah, we always feel confident that the things that we work on, we’re going to see some returns on it. Pass rush isn’t any different. Pass coverage isn’t any different. Those guys have really worked extremely hard in their crafts, and you guys are obviously seeing the fruits of their labor.”
So is Petrino, albeit not quite as dramatic.