Said TE David Thomas: "I really don't know what to think. They've obviously struggled a lot this year. I don't really know what the root of all that is. For whatever reason, they haven't had as good of a year as they hoped for. I know they've been banged up, and they've had some off-the-field stuff during the off-season. I think you put all of that stuff aside in a state rivalry game."
Said DE Tim Crowder: "I don't really know (about A&M's record) and I don't really try to keep up with that over there. I know that when they play us Friday, they're going to play us like they're 10-0."
Said SS Michael Huff: "They're a team that's struggling this year. If they lose this game, they're not going to a bowl. So they have a lot to play for."
Head coach Mack Brown says it has been a combination of injuries and inexperienced players. The Aggies start four sophomores and one true freshman on their defense. And, depending on the formation, Franchione counts on three freshmen and six sophomores on the other side of the ball.
Fifteen scholarship players, including 10 starters, have combined to miss 63 games due to injury this season in Aggieland. Hardest hit was the WR corps as two starters (Chad Schroeder, Earvin Taylor) and three backups suffered season-ending injuries. Meanwhile, the last thing A&M's beleaguered secondary needed was for a couple of its safeties to join the M.A.S.H. unit. Starting safety Japhus Brown tore the ACL in his left knee on October 5 and was lost for the season. Senior safety Jaxson Appel has had a litany of injuries, ranging from a broken hand to a dislocated elbow, and missed his first start in two seasons against Oklahoma on November 12.
"Injuries and youth is a tough combination," Brown said. "We've had a relatively injury-free year. When we've had a guy hurt, he's missed a game but we've had enough depth to help us. One of the keys to being undefeated this time of year is staying healthy. And we've been able to do that."
It's just that the Aggie faithful expected their program to build on last year's 7-5 mark rather than fighting for bowl eligibility against the nation's No. 2 team. Brown wants his squad to believe that the current crop of Aggies is at least on the same level as last year's Cotton Bowl team that held an (albeit fluke-ish) halftime lead against his Horns in Austin in 2004.
"Very honestly, there's very little difference between 5-5 and 7-5," Brown said. "You're talking about a fumble, you're talking about a missed kick, you're talking about a deep pass."
You're also talking about a team that needed an overtime win against Baylor to avoid being 4-6, that lost by four TDs at home to Iowa State and that allowed Texas State to make it a four-quarter game. Starting quarterbacks represent the usual suspects among a disgruntled fan base when teams fall below expectations, and there's been Maroon fingers pointed at QB Reggie McNeal. The senior will complete his eligibility with school records for passing yards and total offense. But his numbers are appreciably down from last season when he threw for 2,791 yards by completing 200 of 344 attempts. Heading into Friday's game, McNeal is 141-of-265 passing for 1,963 yards.
Huff is not without empathy.
"Any starting quarterback would get frustrated with just five wins when he's supposed to be leading the team," Huff said. "He's a great guy and a great leader, but things didn't go right for him this year.
Brown was asked on more than one occasion Monday to explain why A&M's defense has fallen off so significantly as of late and, each time, he diverted the conversation to the relatively successful year the Aggie offense is having. Indeed, A&M and UT are only one of four D-I teams averaging more than 215 rushing and 215 passing yards per game. But the Wrecking Crew has become the Reeking Crew, ranking No. 109 in total defense (464,6 ypg) and dead last against the pass among 117 Division-I teams (318.9 ypg).
"I think there's some things we can take advantage of," Thomas said.
Thing is, Brown was not about to level criticism at Aggie DC Carl Torbush, who not only was his defensive coach at North Carolina but also was his choice as Texas' DC when he first arrived at the Forty Acres in December, 1997. (Brown initially expected the Tar Heels to hire OC Greg Davis as his successor but Carolina instead opted for Torbush after he and Brown were literally en route to Austin for introductory meetings. Torbush was fired after three seasons as head coach in Chapel Hill.)
But here's what Brown and his players are too diplomatic to say: it obviously starts with recruiting. You wouldn't need more than one hand to count the number of players who signed with A&M earlier this year that Brown wanted. The general consensus among recruiting services was that A&M's most recent class, with notable exceptions such as TE Martellus Bennett and RB Jorvorskie Lane, was heavier on quantity than it was it was on season-shaping quality. And based simply on the current list of verbals, history will repeat itself on February 1, 2006.
In other words, the personnel gap continues to widen between these two programs.
Friday at 11 a.m. we'll find out if UT's margin of victory is on the same trajectory.