COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One of the biggest on-field changes for this year's Texas A&M squad is the installation of head coach Kevin Sumlin's and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury's up-tempo, wide-open, high-powered offense.
In the first half of the Aggies' season-opening loss to no. 24 Florida before 87,114 on Saturday at Kyle Field, the transition appeared smooth. The offense ran efficiently, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel appeared confident and fearless, the pace was accelerated and the Gators had issues trying to stop the Aggies, who displayed a good mix of run and pass.
But in the final two quarters, things changed. Three-and-outs became the norm, rather than the exception, the running game became unproductive and Manziel -- who made several plays with his legs in the first half -- was bottled up. The final result looked like many the Aggies had last year, when they surrendered six games that they led by double-digits, even if it was arrived at in a different fashion.
After rolling to 269 yards and 17 points in the first half, the Aggies managed just 65 yards and zero points in the second half. Their final six drives ended in punts, and their final seven didn't yield points. And after going 4-for-8 on third downs in the first half, the Aggies went 0-for-6 in that department in the second.
Manziel, the Kerrville (Texas) Tivy product who won the starting job during fall camp, had his ups and downs in his debut. He was accurate for the most part (23-of-30, 173 yards), he was a threat on the ground (17 carries, 60 yards) and he took care of the football (no interceptions or fumbles).
But part of what ailed the Aggies on Saturday was their inability to throw the ball downfield and make the kind of big plays that were a signature of Sumlin's and Kingsbury's offense at Houston, where they directed the No. 1 offense in the country last year, one that averaged 599 yards per game, albeit behind a quarterback much more experienced than Manziel (sixth-year senior Case Keenum).
On Saturday, the Aggies had just three plays of 20 yards or more. Sumlin said there were several factors that contributed to that.
"Protection-wise we had some breakdowns late in the game," Sumlin said. "Johnny took off running a couple of times ... . As you look at it, every play is not designed to be a short pass. We have routes in there that take advantage of certain coverages. We got a lot of two-high-safety (looks) early in the game, and that's when we were able to run the ball a lot better.
"We've got to be able to do some things offensively and change up some reads for the quarterback also. There are things that we got to in the play call, we just didn't get them executed on the field."
And while the perception is often the offense is all-pass all-the-time, it requires an effective run game, and Sumlin stated throughout the preseason his intention to run the football. That was present in the first half on Saturday, not so much in the second. The Aggies collected 101 rushing yards in the first two quarters and just 33 in the final two. Manziel was the leading rusher on the day, while Florida held the Aggies' running back trio -- Christine Michael, Ben Malena and Trey Williams -- in check.
"They're pretty good," Kingsbury said. "You've got to give their D-line credit. Not many people throughout last year and this year have been able to run the ball against them. We just weren't able to get it going."
After running 47 plays in the first half and collecting 18 first downs, the Aggies managed just 23 in the second and three first downs, the final two of which didn't come until their final offensive drive. Sumlin also pointed to penalties -- the Aggies committed nine for 78 yards -- as an issue for the team as a whole. Senior receiver Ryan Swope, who broke school records in catches and receiving yards last season and is expected to be a go-to guy in this offense, was held to just 16 yards on five catches.
"They were fast and they were a good defense," Swope said. "I tip my hat to those guys. We just have to take a look at the film and try to improve on it."
Defensively, the Aggies had a rough first drive but were effective in many areas. They put ample pressure on quarterback Jeff Driskel, sacking him eight times, and forced the Gators to punt on four of their first six possessions of the second half, keeping the team in the game as the offense tried to find its footing.
According to the players, there is much room for improvement on defense amidst the penalties and lack of turnovers.
"We missed too many tackles," senior linebacker Sean Porter said. "I don't think we played that well. We missed too many tackles, missed too many opportunities, blew too many assignments and lost the game."
It wasn't the Southeastern Conference debut the Aggies were looking for, and for some the end result felt a little too similar to the heartbreaking defeats they suffered last year.
"I'm really tired of losing games and talking about what should have happened and what we should have done," Porter said. "Whatever it is, we need to figure out what we need to do to win games, because this ain't going to do it."