Archive for Saturday, October 19, 2002

Aggies winning with defense

But Texas A&M offense improving with Long under center

October 19, 2002

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Texas A&M;'s defense is just plain scary.

"The Wrecking Crew is a bunch of mean, big guys who wanted to kill me," Louisiana Tech quarterback Luke McCown said after A&M; limited Tech to 251 total yards and one touchdown in a 31-7 loss Sept. 28 at College Station, Texas.

The Aggies' defense, guided by former Kansas defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, has ranked in the nation's top 10 in total defense and scoring defense in three of the past four seasons.

The Wrecking Crew looked like a wreck, though, just two weeks ago when Texas Tech escaped College Station with a 48-47 overtime victory. The Red Raiders gained 544 yards.

A&M; came back with a 41-0 victory against Baylor last Saturday at Waco, Texas. The Bars netted a modest 229 yards.

"I was pleased with the effort of out team," said A&M; coach R.C. Slocum, whose team takes on Kansas at 1 p.m. today at Memorial Stadium. "I thought we did a good job of bouncing back after a disappointing loss.

"I think we worked really hard last week. Obviously, when you have a performance like we had, our pride was hurt. We've always taken a lot of pride in playing defense here. They did what I hoped they'd do and had a positive reaction coming back and going to work. We had good focus. It was important to play a good ballgame and get some confidence back."

A&M; (4-2, 1-1 Big 12) had five interceptions against Baylor, raising its Big 12-leading total to 14.

Teams have been forced to pass against the Aggies because they aren't able to run. A&M; has held four of its six opponents to less than 100 yards rushing and leads the Big 12 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 75.3 yards per game.

"We've seen a lot of balls thrown at us," Slocum said. "But a lot of interceptions come from deflected balls and guys breaking on the ball. Maybe not even the guy who's covering, but someone that's breaking over to a tipped ball. We've had that happen a number of times, which is a good indication of your secondary."

Cornerback Sammy Davis is a two-time All-Big 12 selection, and corner Byron Jones ranks second in the conference with four interceptions.

A&M; also has forced eight fumbles, including a league-leading four by linebacker Jarrod Penright. Linebacker Brian Gamble has a league-best three fumble recoveries. The Aggies lead the league with a plus-12 turnover margin.

"We've been kind of streaky in that area," KU coach Mark Mangino said. "We've had some games where we've protected the ball really well. We've had some where we've gotten sloppy at times."

Slocum's defense could have its hands full trying to stop Mangino's quarterback. Junior Bill Whittemore has gained more than 300 total yards in three straight games.

"He can do it all," Slocum said. "I'm impressed with him running it, and he doesn't go down easy. He's a tough runner. He's done that in every ballgame. It's not just that he scrambles on pass plays. They have designed running plays for him. They're doing a good job of taking advantage of his ability."

Offense has been a sore subject for A&M.; The Aggies' 27.8-point scoring average ranks 10th in the conference, just ahead of KU and Baylor.

Slocum stripped play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Dino Babers and given them to assistant head coach Kevin Sumlin after a 13-3 home loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 21.

A&M; also tried three different quarterbacks before settling on sophomore Dustin Long three games into the season.

Long replaced senior starter Mark Farris, who has elbow tendinitis, in the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, prompting chants of "Reggie, Reggie" from the home fans, who wanted a look a touted freshman Reggie McNeal.

Long has silenced any doubters in recent weeks. He had a breakthrough game in the loss to Texas Tech with 367 yards and seven touchdown passes. He followed that with 169 yards and two TDs against Baylor before giving way to McNeal in the second half of a blowout.

"I think that the offense has made steady progress over the last couple of weeks," Slocum said. "Offensively we are moving in the direction that I want to be."

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