Aggies are ailing, but beware Kyle Field

And so we come to the A&M game, where 9-1, fifth-ranked and flying Texas takes on an Aggie program that is dead in the water, having lost three out of five and two straight to fall off the national map. So the Horns kick the dog out of A&M, right? Maybe, but don't bet on it. Bet that this game will be a white-knuckler that isn't decided until deep into the second half.

A&M started the season off in impressive fashion, rolling to a 5-0 record that mostly came against weak opposition before dropping one to Colorado in Boulder. The Ags bounced back to take a tough one at Manhattan against Kansas State and then squeaked by Iowa State in College Station to move to 7-1, but since that time, A&M has been reeling, dropping to 7-3 after being mauled by OU in a game in which A&M posted a total of only 132 yards of offense, including a mere five first downs. And of course, the week before that, Texas Tech, not exactly known for its iron curtain defenses, pitched a shutout on the Ag O. Offensive ugliness personified.

Given the Aggies’ struggles, particularly on offense, many believe talent-wise, the ‘01 Ags are a team that Texas should beat by three-plus touchdowns, and of course their recent slide does nothing to dispel that view. But should is the operative word -- beating A&M when its playing before the zealots at Kyle Field is as daunting a task is there is in college football. How daunting? Well, Texas has beaten A&M all of one time in the last eight trips to College Station, with that lone win coming in 1995 as Texas took the last SWC crown and went on to face Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Every other time since 1983, A&M has thumped the Horns.

You could certainly make the argument that the Farmers had by far the better teams in most of those games, which they did, thanks in large part to the outlaw recruiting tactics of one Jackie Sherrill, tactics that continued for a time after Sherrill’s departure. (The name Warren Gilbert ring a bell?) But Texas’ loss to A&M in ‘99 happened despite the Horns fielding a superior football team, one that came in touting a 9-2 record and a No. 7 national ranking to take on the 24th-ranked Ags. That UT team had knocked off OU and Nebraska and came in on a big-time roll having just hung a 58-7 pasting on Texas Tech.

The Bonfire tragedy obviously leveled the playing field somewhat, as did Ramada-gate and Major Applewhite’s intestinal bug, one of the worst-timed cases of stomach flu in the history of disease. Still, despite all of that, Texas led 16-6 at the half and appeared to be in great shape to deliver the knockout punch to the Aggies. Instead, it was A&M which knocked Texas into a tailspin it never recovered from that season, as it lost the next two to the Huskers and Arkansas.

How’d it happen? Well, the zebras certainly had a hand in it, giving the Ags a call on the Courtnee Garcia "muff", and failing to call interference when Kwame Cavil got mugged on a would-be TD throw in the end zone in the first half, to name but a couple of homer calls. But that is only part of the story. The other part is to give the Aggies and the Kyle Field crowd their due. The A&M offensive coaches managed to find the lone chink in the Horn defensive armor, and killed Texas on the fade route. Plus, the Ags are simply a beast to beat in their place, because that stadium gets loud. I was on the field at the end of the game in ‘99 and I am telling you, I don’t think I have ever heard anything louder, anywhere under any conditions, including Lincoln, Lubbock and Royal-Memorial against A&M in ‘98 when Ricky got the record. Folks, the noise stung my ears. You couldn’t hear the guy next to you say a word. A team facing A&M at Kyle, particularly a Longhorn team which is going to face the crowd at its most hostile and the Aggies at their most pumped, better bring its best, most focused game. This season, all three of A&M's losses have come on the road.

If you think I am giving this plodding, offensively inept A&M team too much credit in its place, my response is simply that Texas better respect what the Ags bring to the table at home, or they will be handed another upset. It’s certainly fair to ask whether the Ags have the horses to hang with Texas. My response is that they do if the Horns come in overconfident.

I’ll grant you, the Ags’ stats certainly don’t suggest that they can play with Texas. A&M’s offensive numbers are bad, particularly its total offense ranking of 95th, which is an average of 319.8 yards per game. The Aggies rank 86th in rushing with only 120.6 yards a game and 72nd in passing with 199 per. They rank 90th in scoring offense with 21.3 ppg. Their defensive numbers, not surprisingly, are much better. A&M ranks 16th in total D, giving up 299.9 yards per game, 22nd in rushing D (115 ypg), 16th in pass efficiency D, and 17th in scoring D (18.3 ppg).

Individually, Derek Farmer, the 5-11, 190 frosh out of Tyler who may not play Friday because of a hyperextended knee, is currently 14th in the conference in rushing having gained 503 yards on 110 carries. Keith Joseph is way back in the pack at 22nd. He’s gained 300 yards this season. Mark Farris has hit 187 of 310 passes, with 8 TDs and 7 INTs. He was spelled by Vance Smith against the Sooners. Farris’ favorite receiving targets are Notre Dame transfer Jamaar Taylor and freshman Terrence Murphy. Murphy and Taylor are Nos. nine and 10 in the conference in receiving yards on the season, with 32 for 495 yards and 39 for 489 yards respectively. Taylor, though, is doubtful with a torn calf muscle, possibly bumping true freshman Terrence Thomas into a starting role. True freshman Thomas Carriger has been forced into the starting spot at TE due to injury. In fact, the Ags started four true freshmen against OU -- WRs Murphy and Thomas, TE Carriger and OL Jami Hightower. It’s no wonder things are moving kinda slow.

Defensively, A&M is a pretty veteran bunch, starting seniors Rocky Bernard and Evan Perroni at the ends and junior Ty Warren at tackle. OLB Christian Rodriguez is a senior while ILB Brian Gamble and OLB Jerrod Penright are juniors. CB Sammy Davis and SS Terrance Kiel are juniors while FS Jay Brooks is a senior. Brooks has missed most of the last four weeks because of a groin injury suffered prior to the Oct. 20 K-State game but he has practiced this week and could return to the A&M starting line-up Friday. If not, redshirt freshman Eric Crutchfield will get the start at free safety. Warren's also been a bit banged up, missing the OU game with a pectoral strain, but like Brooks has practiced this week and should play against the Horns.

Kiel leads the Ags in tackles with 84, including two TFLs. Amazingly, the A&M D has four guys with more than 10 TFLs -- Bernard (14), Penright (17), Warren (11) and Rodriguez (12) -- plus three with five or more sacks -- Big 12 leader Penright (9.5), Bernard (5) and Rodriguez (5.5). An interesting note on Penright: only one of his 9.5 sacks has come over the last five games. The other 8.5 came against McNeese, Wyoming, Okie State, Notre Dame and Baylor. Davis leads the team with five picks and eight pass breakups. Overall, the Ags have grabbed 14 INTs. The A&M rush defense has allowed just two runs over 20 yards on the season, and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher since last year's Independence Bowl.

A&M's special teams are not quite as dominant as its defense. Sophomore Cody Scates handles both the punting and kicking chores, averaging 41.4 yards per punt but making just eight of 15 field goal attempts (although he has put it through the uprights on six of his last seven attempts). The Ags have blocked two punts on the season and also have had one blocked by the opposition. Dawon Gentry averaged a healthy 12.4 yards per punt return with a long return of 39 before suffering a herniated disk that ended his season. His replacements have averaged a more pedestrian eight yards per return over the last three games. On kickoffs, the Ags average just under 20 yards per return with a long of 31 by Davis.

[Editor's note: Clendon Ross contributed to this article.]

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