Football vs. Arkansas (copy)

Junior defensive lineman Justin Madubuike leads the defense with two sacks.

A&M struggled to find much separation as they edged out SEC rival Arkansas in the Southwestern Classic two weeks ago.

With promising drives that ended in turnovers and an overall lackluster performance in the rushing game, the Aggies couldn’t beat Arkansas like they expected to. It took an overthrown ball on fourth down for then-No. 23 A&M to squeak past an Arkansas team that had quarterback Ben Hicks fill in for former A&M quarterback, Nick Starkel, who left the game with a left arm contusion.

After a bye week with a chance to recover from lingering injuries and reset mentally, No. 24 A&M will have another tough task this week as it squares off against No. 1 Alabama at Kyle Field.

Something coach Jimbo Fisher said he would like to see this week is for the pass rush to affect Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“You always have to find ways to disrupt the passer,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to get guys to get home, stay in lanes, and do that. We’re not playing up to our capabilities in anything. I don’t think you do that at this time of the year. Hopefully, you get better each and every day as you’re coming through the season, but right now we’ve got to affect the quarterback and get the rush going.”

Thus far, the A&M defense has collected a meager eight sacks on the season with three coming in the last two games. Junior defensive tackle Justin Madubuike has two of those eight sacks. If the A&M defense wants to make it difficult for the quarterback to throw, it will need its pass rush to get better.

The starting group of Madubuike, sophomore nose guard Bobby Brown III, sophomore defensive end Tyree Johnson and senior defensive end Michael Clemons must provide more pass rush to assist the secondary. Fortunately for them, there is no better time to showcase that improvement than this week.

Tagovailoa has been unstoppable to start the season completing 76 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,718 yards, 23 touchdowns and no interceptions. The signal caller has had plenty of time in the pocket, while looking largely unchallenged as he delivers passes to his star-studded wide receiver core consisting of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.

While Ruggs III is questionable for the game with an injured left hip pointer, the trio of Jeudy, Waddle and Smith will look to use their combination of route running, speed and toughness to put up points against an Aggie secondary that has played admirably at the start of the season.

Alabama’s star-studded wide receiving core will have to deal with starting cornerbacks Myles Jones and Debione Renfro, and safeties Leon O’Neal Jr and Demani Richardson. This group has played admirably, catching three interceptions and deflecting three passes on the season. The secondary could look to employ a significant amount of nickel formation to combat the talented receivers with senior Charles Oliver playing in the slot.

“They’re going to have their hands full, and I think they are looking forward to the challenge,” Fisher said. “Those guys have done a really nice job. The length, the size, they’re learning to control their bodies, they’re learning not just how to be athletes, but how to be football players. … Those guys have done a nice job taking to coach and looking at film, and have been very competitive with each other and I think they have done a really, really nice job.”

While the matchup between Alabama’s receiving core and A&M’s secondary will be key in the development of this game, the Crimson Tide continues to have a powerful running game led by running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr.

Alabama only has the 57th-best rushing offense, but the individual contributions of Harris and Robinson cannot be overlooked. Both running backs have combined for 100 rushes, 535 yards and three touchdowns on the year.

A&M currently has the No. 33 ranked rush defense in the nation only allowing 3.74 yards per rush. That will need to keep up if the Aggies are going to stop this dependable Alabama rushing attack.

Kickoff between Alabama and A&M is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at Kyle Field and will be broadcasted on CBS as the game of the week.

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