ARLINGTON, Texas -- The last time Texas A&M lined up against Arkansas, the Aggies gave up 30 points in the first half, ending any real chance of a win early, despite a double-digit lead to open the game.
On Saturday, the defense allowed just three points in the second half, and any remaining thoughts of an upset remained realistic through the final snap solely because of the defense's play.
But a Texas A&M offense that sputtered with turnovers, false starts and incompletions, sandwiched around two long passes to receiver Jeff Fuller that resulted in points, couldn't make enough plays to upset No. 11 Arkansas, losing 24-17.
Last week, five turnovers produced a loss to Oklahoma State. This week, the Aggies will be blaming a lack of execution and offensive miscues that didn't allow the defense's play to spark a win.
"It's not so much what we did, it's who we did it with," said coach Mike Sherman. "Last year, we did it with 18 freshmen, and those guys are sophomores this year."
The good news for Texas A&M is obvious: If the offense catches up to a clearly improved defense, the Aggies can rebound from a frustrating 3-2 start. But a year ago at this time, the thought of Texas A&M's offense being the reason for a loss -- two consecutive losses, to be exact -- was unthinkable.
The Aggies' offense entered the season quarterbacked by the Big 12's preseason player of the year, Jerrod Johnson, who led an team that ranked No. 5 nationally in total offense a year ago. But on Saturday, the offense produced just 324 yards of offense, almost 200 beneath its average.
Meanwhile, the defense was outside the national top 100 last season but sat inside the top 15 this year entering Saturday's game. That defense handed the ball back to the offense with a chance to lead or tie six times in the second half.
"It's obvious we've made some big strides," said senior linebacker Michael Hodges. "We're older. That helps. We've definitely grown a lot since our last two seasons. But really the mindset we take into it, we just build on it in practice, that fanatical effort we're always talking about. That really pushes us to be that defense that can stop anybody at any time."
But with that maturity came defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who has put to good use the experienced talent Texas A&M already had, like Hodges, linebacker/defensive end Von Miller, safety Trent Hunter and defensive tackle Lucas Patterson.
They hassled Johnson throughout fall camp and did the same thing to Arkansas' Heisman hopeful, Ryan Mallett, who was just 10-of-16 for 81 yards in the second half.
"The constant movement of the defense makes it hard. One thing Coach [DeRuyter] is constantly saying in practice is don't show anything too soon. They show you one thing and then give you something else. They run every type of coverage you can think of," Johnson said. "They just do so much, they throw so much at you, but at the same time, they're sound and they're covering all their gaps."
The defense gave up a 45-yard run to Arkansas as part of an 80-yard drive to open the game. It gave up a 71-yard touchdown pass to fall behind 14-7. It had to defend its side of the field three times when the offense turned it over on the Texas A&M side of the field, limiting Arkansas to just three points on those turnover.
"The past years we've been hit and just shut down," said defensive back Terrence Frederick.
That's clearly not the case this year, when twice, the offense has been given chances to win with timely defensive stops late in the fourth quarter.
This is a different Texas A&M defense. Most importantly, this is a better Texas A&M defense.
"I just go back to maturity; that's really the big difference," Hodges said.
But without the offense behind it, clicking like it did in 2009, this is the same Texas A&M team, headed for the middle of the Big 12 South and a low-level bowl game.
Next week, it'll host a Missouri team that may come to College Station undefeated and ranked. The opportunities for the Aggies will be there. But to win, both sides of the ball will have to take advantage of them.
"You always have to take something from every time you play the game; you either get better or you get worse," Sherman said. "Did we win the game? No. Did we improve during the course of the game? Yes. Do I think they lack confidence because they lost the game? No. If we catch the last pass instead of them, and have a chance to win the football game [in overtime], are we an entirely different football team? No, I don't think so. So I think we take a lot from today into next week."