COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M's defense has taken a beating – on the field and off – throughout the season.
On the field, it has been the statistically the worst in the SEC in total defense, yards per play, rushing defense and near the bottom in several other categories. The national rankings in many areas have been in the 100s. As a result, the unit has taken a heap of criticism, especially when compared with the team's high-powered offense which puts up points in bunches.
But on Saturday in a 56-24 win over Vanderbilt, the Aggies' defense got up off the mat and punched back, putting together a strong performance against the Commodores. Texas A&M allowed only 329 total yards, 95 rushing, forced three turnovers and had a season-high seven sacks.
For once, the defense was a source of positive discussion.
"I feel like we finally put together a complete game," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "There weren’t a lot of blown coverages or assignments gap-wise. That was the biggest thing and having fun out there."
The sack totals were particularly eye-opening because Texas A&M had been one of the country's worst in generating a pass rush before Saturday. The Aggies had seven sacks total entering Saturday's game, but matched the season tally in one day.
The reason? More blitz calls from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who said he finally felt comfortable dialing up more pressure. As the defense continued to see players go in and out of the lineup all season for various reasons (suspensions, injuries, inept play), it was a challenge to get a group of 11 players that Snyder felt he could trust to be in the right place in the right time, especially considering how much youth is on that side of the ball (11 freshmen exist in the two-deep depth chart).
But as players begin to settle into their roles and get more comfortable, especially in the secondary, Snyder is beginning to feel more comfortable taking risks. The group back there on Saturday – cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris along with safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven – were the projected four starters at the beginning of the year but have rarely been on the field together for one reason or another.
"We need to stay healthy and keep the young DBs coming along and learning," Snyder said. "There is a degree of difficulty for the back end to do some of the things we do and to have those guys all in place helped a lot."
It also helped that Vanderbilt's starting quarterback on Saturday, Patton Robinette, was a freshman making his first career start, though Snyder said the game plan appeared to be the same as the previous week when the Commodores beat Georgia. Considering that Texas A&M struggled to stop virtually everybody this season, including FCS team Sam Houston State and Rice, whom it gave up 306 rushing yards to in the season opener, any positive sign is a good one for the Aggies.
So is Saturday's performance reason for optimism with the A&M defense or will they simply revert back to previous ways moving forward? It might be hard to tell this week, because the No. 12 Aggies host a struggling nonconference opponent in UTEP (1-6). Should the Aggies repeat what they did on Saturday for a second straight week, however, they could build some momentum to take into the home stretch of their conference slate as they finish up the year against Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri.
If the Aggies can stay healthy and keep the personnel consistent on that side of the ball, Snyder can continue to be aggressive in his calls. That aggressiveness was one trait of the 2012 A&M defense, which was surprisingly good despite question marks on the defensive line, about depth in general and was a key part to Texas A&M's inaugural 11-2 campaign in the SEC.
With an open date following Saturday's game before the final three conference games -- the final two of which are on the road -- the defense will need to continue to improve if the Aggies have hopes of winning the remainder of their games.
"I think at this point what happens is for them to have some success Saturday I thought was important and hopefully we were better," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were not great by any means and hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys and some success as a defense, we'll continue to get better and gain some confidence from that because that's going to be important moving forward."