For the first time this season, No. 10 Texas A&M unveiled a defense that its high-octane offense could depend on to carry its share of the burden in deciding a game.
At least against SMU. And that’s a big step in the right direction for the Aggies, who entered Saturday’s 42-13 romp in Kyle Field ranked No. 112 nationally in yards allowed (489 per game).
But the Aggies shuffled the defensive lineup against the Mustangs, moving Deshazor Everett from cornerback to free safety. Tramain Jacobs slid into Everett’s cornerback spot. And freshman Darian Claiborne took over at middle linebacker for Donnie Baggs, who started the first three games.
The difference was noticeable from the outset, with A&M limiting SMU to a pair of first-half field goals and preventing the Mustangs from reaching the Aggies’ red zone until the 4:44 mark of the third quarter.
But that 17-play, 65-yard march, SMU’s best until garbage time in the fourth quarter, did not yield points because the Aggies (3-1) forced a fourth-down incompletion from Mustangs quarterback Garrett Gilbert when they turned up the defensive heat.
Unlike in the first three games, when a young defense struggled in dealing with suspensions or top-ranked Alabama’s offense, there was a discernible pass rush Saturday, although A&M was credited with only one sack.
There was a better look in coverage from the Aggies’ secondary, as well as three forced turnovers. There was even a defensive touchdown, when nickel back Toney Hurd Jr. jarred the ball loose from SMU receiver Jeremiah Gaines and Everett returned it 12 yards for a score.
Mostly, the Mustangs (1-2) — unlike Rice, Sam Houston State and Alabama before them — stayed bottled up on their side of the 50-yard-line at Kyle Field, generating occasional yards but never any meaningful momentum, until A&M began emptying the bench in the fourth quarter after building a 42-6 lead.
“I think we’ve got the right guys on the field now,” A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “Darian made the adjustment from weakside to middle linebacker in a week. He brings a lot of energy out there. And Deshazor is an eraser out there, regardless of whether he’s playing safety or cornerback.”
Snyder said the lineup the Aggies unveiled Saturday likely will remain intact until safety Floyd Raven is able to return from a broken collarbone. That sounds good to A&M defensive end Julien Obioha, who felt like the defense made strides at all three levels.
“I think we came out and played good,” Obioha said. “We didn’t get many sacks, but we were getting pressure on their quarterback. As a defense, we just need to put a whole bunch of good games together. And we needed one game to start it off right.”
That game occurred Saturday.
SMU never took a snap inside the A&M 25-yard-line. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, threw for 244 yards and rushed for 102, and accounted for three touchdowns while building a 39-6 lead.
Manziel turned things over to backups Matt Joeckel and Kenny Hill for the final 25 minutes. The Aggies responded by posting their fourth consecutive 40-point outing to start a season, a first in program history despite having kickers miss three consecutive extra point kicks.
But this was not a night for offensive milestones or for furthering the statistical largesse of Manziel, who entered with consecutive 400-yard passing games but racked up just 346 total yards in his abbreviated appearance against SMU.
Instead, the primary purpose of this one involved building consistency and continuity in a defense that had been lacking it before A&M begins the meat of its SEC schedule next week at Arkansas.
Mission accomplished. At least for Saturday night.
SMU wound up with its share of yards (434) but most of them were empty, collected outside of the scoring zone. SMU converted just 5 of 16 third-down situations. A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said: “We can get a little confidence coming out of this one with the guys on defense.”
Will this translate to success against better-balanced, more talented SEC offenses in the weeks ahead? That remains to be seen. SMU has its share of weapons but probably is the least explosive of the four teams A&M has faced this season. The Mustangs also did the least amount of damage, in regard to points and big plays, of any opponent against A&M.
That stands to reason, now that the Aggies’ defense is at full strength. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement, Saturday’s position tweaks and forced turnovers proved to be a key step in that direction.