ANSWERING THE BELL
A&M's youthful defense steps up when it mattered most Saturday,
helping Aggies roll to big win over Vanderbilt
by Chandler Smith
Over 86,000 fans packed the rafters at Kyle Field on Saturday, hoping to see defending Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Biletnikoff candidate Mike Evans and the Texas A&M offense dominate.
What they discovered was a very different and less expected style of dominance – one of a more defensive persuasion.
Through seven games of the 2013 season, a youthful and inexperienced Texas A&M defense remained square on its heels, holding on as it grinded through the gauntlet while searching as it could for drive-to-drive – and game-to-game – improvement.
- Mark Snyder
Against Vanderbilt, no improvement was greater or more tangible.
Whether the Aggies forced the Commodore offense to a 3-of-11 (27 percent) third-down conversion rate, doubled their season sack total with an astounding seven, forced three turnovers, or held Vandy to less than 100 yards rushing, the defense possessed a parry for every offensive strike.
Even Vanderbilt’s much-ballyhooed stud, star wide receiver Jordan Mathews, would largely be held in check despite a solid 92-yard receiving day.
A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, all smiles following a 56-24 thrashing, said he knew this game would be a major turning point for his unit and a harbinger of success to come.
“I felt we finally got to the place where all the pieces came together,” Snyder said. “I felt comfortable calling the pressures because everybody knew where we were supposed to be. I told the TV crew on Friday that this would be our game where we started becoming who we have been, who we are going to be and who we always have been.”
The response of the 12th Man and a vibrant Kyle Field was palpable, as the Aggies relentlessly assaulted the Commodores drive after drive. Following the defense’s debut three-and-out, the stadium joined an already-standing student section for an emotional and much-warranted ovation – a notable celebration repeated on several occasions throughout the afternoon.
Snyder said he could see the defense turning around in practices leading up to the game, but wanted from his unit results and--more significantly--improvement for all to see.
“I thought we had a really good week of practice, the challenge before we hit the field was transitioning it from practice to Kyle Field,” Snyder said. “I thought the kids did that for the most part today. We’ve still got some things we need to get cleaned up…(but) to me it’s about improvement. I want to continue to see improvement. I think we’re at a juncture where that should start happening.”
And though the Texas A&M offense would operate with its consistent explosiveness, an unusual number of miscues – namely five turnovers – could have allowed the Commodores to seize much-needed confidence.
The defense responded valiantly.
- Julien Obioha
Scoring just seven points off those turnovers, Vanderbilt could simply not capitalize on the fruit of its opportunistic labors. Having closed the gap by rallying to a 28-17 half-time score, the Commodores could have applied a considerable amount of pressure on the Aggies with an early scoring drive.
Safety Howard Mathews would instead swing the momentum entirely in Texas A&M’s favor with a sensational pick-six, anchoring down Vanderbilt for the remainder of regulation.
Defensive linemen Gavin Stansbury, who tallied nine tackles and two sacks, said the youth of the defense responded to the upperclassmen’s enthusiasm despite trying circumstances.
“The freshmen kind of fed off us, we brought energy every time we got on the field,” Stansbury said. “Every time we got on the field, no matter if the offense scored or we threw a pick or turnover, we came out with energy. Everyone just fed off that.”
For a defense searching desperately for a seed of hope, this game could be the spark the unit needs to further its successes. The worst, it would seem, might be over.
Sophmore defensive end Julien Obioha said the victory represents a model the defense will attempt to emulate as the Aggies fight to keep their BCS hopes alive.
“We needed an example to show us how we should play,” Obioha said. “This is the type of standard we expect from our defense. It’s good to have a game like this.”