COLLEGE STATION — During last year’s memorable debut as an SEC football program, Texas A&M introduced itself to its new neighbors by unleashing a relentless pass rush led by Damontre Moore.Moore, now an NFL rookie, collected a team-high 12.5 of the Aggies’ 31 sacks in 2012.Heading into Saturday’s game against UTEP, Moore’s sack standard finally has been eclipsed. But it took the whole team to top it. And it required No. 12 A&M (6-2, 3-2 SEC) to collect seven sacks in last week’s 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt to double the season total to 14.Among individual pass rushers, one of this year’s pacesetters is defensive end Gavin Stansbury. He recorded both of his sacks against Vanderbilt, allowing him to share the team lead (2) with defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and freshman linebacker Shaan Washington.Those numbers speak volumes about the Aggies’ diminished pass rush in 2013 and explain why the team has been a defensive disappointment heading into November. But the consistent pressure shown against Vanderbilt could mark the start of something significant for the stretch run, said defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.“We didn’t have to add blitzes to get pressure,” Snyder said during Tuesday’s news conference. “But when we did add them, it made the world go ’round. This should be our game where we started becoming who we have been and who we are going to be.”A couple of factors merged together in the past week to create Snyder’s optimism. In addition to the ongoing maturation of several freshmen in the defensive trenches, the Aggies had their top five defensive backs healthy and available in the same game for the first time this season. That emboldened Snyder to dial up blitzes he had been hesitant to call earlier in the season for fear of blown assignments leading to walk-in touchdowns.“There’s a degree of difficulty for the back end when you blitz. To have all those guys in place helped a lot,” Snyder said. “I felt we finally got to the place where all the pieces came together.”As a result, A&M’s spotty defense held Vanderbilt to the fewest yards (329) and points (24) it has yielded to any SEC opponent this season. It did so despite a season-high five turnovers by the offense. And it did so against a group of Commodores (4-4, 1-4) who arrived in College Station following a 31-27 upset of then-No. 15 Georgia.Expect A&M to keep it together in Saturday’s nonconference matchup against UTEP (1-6). The Miners will start backup quarterback Blaire Sullivan, an injury replacement for A&M transfer Jameill Showers, who dislocated his throwing shoulder in last week’s 45-7 loss to Rice.All signs point toward another sackfest for the green-and-growing Aggies, who listed eight freshmen on Tuesday’s depth chart among members of their front seven. Including the secondary, coach Kevin Sumlin lists 11 freshmen among his primary defenders.But the bigger question is whether A&M can carry that defensive momentum forward after Saturday’s game at Kyle Field (8 p.m., ESPN2). A BCS bowl berth remains a possibility for A&M, but only if the Aggies run the table, including season-ending victories over No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2) and No. 9 Missouri (7-1, 3-1). The defense that showed up against Vanderbilt will be needed to make that happen. Linebacker Nate Askew, who recorded his second interception of the season against Vanderbilt, called it a potential season-turner that the Aggies “finally put together a complete game on the defensive side.”“Once we did that, we saw how good of a defense we could have,” Askew said. “Hopefully, that will increase the confidence.”Without question, the breakthrough performance boosted the psyche of the guys on offense, who have posted 40-point efforts in every game and have shouldered A&M’s burden of proof in regard to winning and losing on a weekly basis. Until now.“When we see the defense playing at that level, it does wonders for us,” running back Ben Malena said. “We’re already an offense that has the mindset of putting up points every time we touch the ball.“But when we see our defense going out there and playing like they’re capable of playing, it makes us hungry to get out there and feed off of their energy.”The Aggies should enjoy buffet conditions against outmanned UTEP. After that, even coach Kevin Sumlin is not sure.“We were better, but not great by any means,” Sumlin said, summing up his team’s defensive effort. “Hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys, we’ll continue to get better. That’s going to be important moving forward.”It will be essential if A&M is going to remain a candidate in the BCS bowl mix through the remainder of the regular season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch