For Tech to be able to accomplish this feat, the general consensus is that the defense will have to prevent Aggie quarterback Reggie McNeal from, literally, running wild. The 205-pound junior from Lufkin has been a rushing terror in 2004, carrying the ball 112 times for 638 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Red Raider defense, despite improving dramatically over last year's dismal performance to the number 47 ranking in the nation, would seem almost bespoke for exploitation by McNeal. In particular, it has been especially vulnerable to rushing quarterbacks the past couple of years, giving up 295 yards on 19 carries to Missouri's Brad Smith last season, and this season surrendering 158 to Texas's Vince Young, 84 to Kansas State's Dylan Meier, and 49 to New Mexico's Kole McKamey, no less. For the Red Raiders to keep the A&M offense in check, their 76th-rated run defense simply must get some sort of a handle on McNeal.
Compounding the difficulty for the defense, McNeal is a very effective passer. On the season, he has completed 141 of 242 passes for 2049 yards and 11 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Terrence Murphy, a 6' 1" 200 senior from Tyler, is McNeal's favorite target. He has 39 catches for 530 yards and three touchdowns.
The Raider defense does look to be a good bet to shut down A&M's passing attack, however. It is currently rated 13th best in the country, allowing only 179 yards per game. Free safety Vincent Meeks and cornerback Antonio Huffman have been the bell cows of the secondary, but Khalid Naziruddin, always a force against the run, has improved his coverage skills dramatically as well. Linebackers Brock Stratton and Mike Smith (the defense's leading tackler) have also helped out in coverage, and defensive end Adell Duckett has been a playmaker along the line, intercepting two passes and returning them for a total of 60 yards.
As tough a task as the Red Raider defense has on its hands, the chore for the Aggie stop-unit may be even tougher. Head coach Mike Leach's offense has been ball-lightning since his arrival in 2000, and the 2004 unit is no different. It is currently number three in the nation in total offense with 497 yards per game, and first in passing with 411 per outing.
Senior quarterback Sonny Cumbie, a former walk on from Snyder, is the man who makes it all go. He leads the nation in passing yardage per game at 405, and is number 23 in passing efficiency. Cumbie has completed 320 of 486 passes for 3647 yards, 24 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He is fortunate to have two devastating weapons at his disposal in wideouts Jarrett Hicks and Trey Haverty. The former is seventh in the nation in yards per game and has 57 catches for 983 yards and eight touchdowns. Haverty has also caught 57 passes for 792 yards and seven touchdowns.
The matchup against Tech's passing attack looks inauspicious for A&M. The Aggies are surrendering 253 passing yards per game (#99 in the nation) despite the fact that they get good pressure on opposing quarterbacks: A&M has registered 26 sacks on the season. Defensive end Mike Montgomery, a 6-6, 280-pound senior from Center, is the primary Aggie menace in the front seven, with 57 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, four sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, and a forced fumble.
Given A&M's defensive aggressiveness up front, which includes a penchant for the blitz, the Red Raiders may well attempt to take advantage by going to a running game that is very potent when it is actually utilized. The Red Raiders are averaging only 86 rushing yards per game (#114) nationally, but running backs Taurean Henderson and Johnnie Mack have both been highly effective, nevertheless. Henderson is averaging 5.5 yards per carry (by way of comparison, A&M's primary back, Courtney Lewis averages 4.3 yards per rush) on 117 carries for 640 yards. He has also scored 12 touchdowns. Mack also averages well over five yards per carry. The Aggie rushing defense, led by safety Jaxson Appel with a team-leading 62 tackles, is 28th best in the nation.
On the whole, the statistical matchup between the two teams is fairly even. A Tech victory, therefore, may hinge upon reversing a pair of trends that, if they continue, will work to the Aggies's advantage. To begin with, the Red Raiders must play well in the first quarter. Hitherto, Tech has been mediocre in the opening stanza, while the Aggies have outscored the opposition 58-27. Coming back from a large deficit in the loony environs of Kyle Field may be doable for a Raider team that has notched the two largest rallies in school history this season, but it is not the optimal scenario.
Second, Tech must keep the turnover margin close. On the season, the Raiders have turned the ball over 18 times and forced 18 turnovers from the opposition. A&M, on the other hand, has only turned the ball over seven times while creating 18 turnovers. If Tech gives up the ball, particularly in its own territory, it will put the defense in a virtually impossible situation, which will almost certainly lead to Aggie touchdowns, which, in turn, will whip the A&M faithful into a frenzy. This is something the Raiders would like to avoid.