- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset No. 1 Alabama last November, the Aggies' offense, and specifically quarterback Johnny Manziel, were lauded for their efforts in taking down the Crimson Tide.
Often overlooked was the play of Texas A&M's defense, which was integral in the Aggies' ability to jump out to the 20-0 lead that paved the way for the eventual 29-24 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
While nobody would confuse the Aggies' defensive efforts with that of the 1985 Chicago Bears that November day, A&M was opportunistic and effective.
On the first three drives of the game, the Aggies held the Crimson Tide to two three-and-outs and a turnover. The offense capitalized by scoring after each of those defensive stops to take the commanding three-score lead.
Turnovers were key for the Aggies throughout the game. They came up with three, the most the Crimson Tide committed since a 2011 season opener vs. Kent State, when Alabama committed five. Quarterback AJ McCarron hadn't thrown an interception in 2012 going into the game and threw two against the Aggies.
In several ways, the Aggies' ability to come up with stops and turnovers at key times was representative of what the unit accomplished as whole last season under defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. The defense came into the 2012 season with questions about depth and competitiveness in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.
Those questions were answered resoundingly as the Aggies ranked highly in several key categories in 2012. They had the nation's 26th-best scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and one of the best third-down defenses, allowing conversions just 32.4 percent of the time (16th nationally, fourth in the SEC).
They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 in the country on third-and-5 or fewer yards (44.6 percent conversion rate).
This season, with six key defensive players serving suspensions for part or all of the season opener against Rice and four more serving penalties for all or part of the second game against Sam Houston State, the numbers have taken a dip. On third down, the Aggies are tied for 73rd in the country, allowing a 39.4 percent conversion rate. On 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, the Aggies are in the middle of the pack (59th, 52.9 percent conversion rate).
The Aggies are averaging 6.16 yards allowed per play, up from 5.22 last year.
Having almost the full complement of defensive players, including the return of starting linebacker Steven Jenkins, starting cornerback De'Vante Harris and starting defensive end Gavin Stansbury, should help the Aggies' defensive efforts.
"It'll be interesting once the game gets started," Snyder said. "They've got to knock a little bit of rust off. We've got a couple days here of practice first to get some of the rust knocked off. It was really good [Monday] to have our first unit out there together. It was very, very pleasing to see."
Starting safety Floyd Raven Sr. (collarbone) will miss the game because of his injury, and starting defensive end Julien Obioha's status is up in the air also. Cornerback Deshazor Everett said the country hasn't seen the Aggies' "real defense" yet.
"We can only progress, so I'm not going to say they've seen the real defense," Everett said. "But we have to get better, and we'll keep getting better, and this week of practice is crucial. But as a whole defense, we'll keep progressing and getting better."
Though the Aggies were able to intercept McCarron in the last meeting, Snyder said he expects the quarterback to be poised and confident coming into Saturday's game.
"He is a leader," Snyder said. "He runs their offense. He knows where his checkdowns are and obviously he is a great leader for them, because they have won a lot of football games. He drives that engine. He's the guy that's driving the car. And you can see his poise and patience, and it's hard to get him rattled. And if you do get him rattled a little bit, he has the ability to go over and sit down and get unrattled and come back out and play in his game. That's what I see in him."
The players know the national perception is that it's easy to move the ball on the Aggies, and because of the evidence presented by Rice (306 rushing yards) and Sam Houston State (240), it's hard to argue that, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. But the players know the way to change what people think is by improving their play, starting Saturday.
"Yes. I think everyone looks at it that way," Everett said. "You can look at what a defense does well and what a defense doesn't do well, and you go off of that basically and see where you want to attack and what their weaknesses are. That's what we're trying to improve on, what our weaknesses are."
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf