Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Aggies still have much to prove after fast start
By David Ubben ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
One of the early mysteries in college football finally will be solved Saturday.
Texas A&M is one of the nation’s biggest unknowns. The Aggies are undefeated, which seemed improbable before the season. But even more unlikely, they are a team at the top of several notable NCAA statistical lists after a surprising 3-0 start.
Patrick Green/Icon SMI
Von Miller leads the country in sacks and tackles for loss.
Heading into their game Saturday against Arkansas (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) , A&M leads the nation in total offense and sacks -- two surprising categories considering the team’s struggles in those areas last season. The Aggies rank no lower than seventh nationally in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring and are the nation’s only team to rank in the top 10 in each of those four team categories.
Obviously, the team’s weak schedule of nonconference opponents have played a big part in its early success. But the early spurt has transpired in a relative media vacuum without much public knowledge except for those fans who attended the three games at Kyle Field.
The Aggies have beaten New Mexico, Utah State and UAB -- teams with a combined 2-9 record that will never be considered as juggernauts. That’s made judging this Aggies team a little problematic so far, considering the crumbs still around their mouths after devouring those three scheduling cream puffs.
“You know, I kind of focus on the things we didn't do more so than what we did do," A&M head coach Mike Sherman said last week when asked about his team’s fast statistical start. "I'm very realistic when it comes to statistics. I don't spend a whole lot of time looking at them.”
But no matter if the Aggies were playing the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers or Slippery Rock, their early success shouldn’t be discounted.
“I think we’re a good team,” A&M senior free safety Jordan Pugh said. “This will be our biggest challenge so far and how we handle the challenge, we’ll find out on Saturday.”
The early statistical binge hasn’t been surprising to quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who ranks third nationally in total offense and 11th in passing efficiency. He’s coming off a game where he accounted for a school-record six touchdowns -- three rushing and three passing -- to spark the Aggies’ 56-19 victory over UAB.
Johnson showed mercurial talents last season but struggled late in the season with turnovers. Despite those late struggles, Johnson’s confidence in the offense never flagged.
“I think I progressed pretty well from last year,” said Johnson, who has thrown nine touchdown passes with no interceptions this season. “We struggled to find our identity at times. But now, it’s not a first-year offense or team working together. We’re all on the same page this year and you can see the results.”
The Aggies converted 14 of 17 third-down plays last week against UAB, including 12 straight at one stretch.
“That’s something we are very proud of,” Johnson said. “We put a lot of work into staying on the field. The coaches really emphasize winning third-down plays. And that’s what I’ve tried to do so far this year.”
The Aggies also made a schematic change to their defense, incorporating the “jack” position, occupied by speedy pass-rushing specialist Von Miller. The result has been that Miller leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.
“Last year when we looked at our personnel, we thought Von had an OK year, not a great year,” Sherman said. “I didn’t feel like we highlighted him enough to showcase his talents. We felt like there were a lot of things we could do with him as a linebacker and a blitzer. The ‘Jack’ position gives us some flexibility to highlight some things, which it has.”
The chance to play old Southwest Conference rival Arkansas at the shiny new stadium in Arlington is big for the A&M program. They will face a tough challenge from the 1-2 Razorbacks, who feature a potent offense keyed by 6-foot-7, 238-pound quarterback Ryan Mallett.
The Razorbacks will test the Aggies unlike any other opponent so far this season. But Miller is excited about what a big performance on Saturday could do for A&M’s national profile.
“We knew it would be like this,” Miller said. “All the guys have a chip on our shoulder and still a lot of stuff to prove. It’s kind of good they look at us underdogs. Now, we have to go out and show people something.”