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November 26, 2009

How A&M can pull off the Thanksgiving upset

Thanksgiving's annual Lone Star grudge match between Texas A&M and Texas matches two programs that have traveled totally different paths to their head-on collision Thursday night at Kyle Field.

On paper, the matchup doesn't look too promising for A&M. However, it's a rivalry game loaded with emotion and there's no telling how much that factor will come into play.

Over the history of the series, both A&M and Texas have brought dominant teams into the game only to see them struggle against what appeared to be a vastly inferior opponent going into the contest. A&M beat Texas in 1979 and 1980 as a significant underdog. More recently, A&M pushed the eventual national champion Horns to the brink in 2005 and won as an underdog in 2006 and 2007. During A&M's streak where it won nine of ten between 1984 and 1994, Texas beat the spread as a team with a losing record in 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1993.

Thus the question remains: What does A&M need to do to pull off the upset, and maybe even more importantly, what do the Aggies need from Texas to make it happen?

First off, despite the fact that we have emphasized all season long that the Big 12 conference is a quarterback-driven league, historically the team that runs the ball better wins this game. That's because coaches usually get more conservative in these games and emotion elevates the play of the defenses.

Ironically enough, even though Texas has a high scoring offense, A&M comes into the game with the better rushing attack, averaging 190 yards per game and ranking 25th nationally. However, Texas ranks first nationally in rushing defense, giving up just 50.1 yards per game. Even accounting for the fact that sacks are included as rushing attempts, A&M faces a daunting challenge.

Even more interestingly, in each of its six wins and regardless of the number of plays it runs, A&M has run the ball at least 44 times, has generated at least 13 first downs on the ground and has rushed for a minimum of 236 yards per game. In the five losses, A&M has rushed for a high of only 132 yards, generally runs the ball less than 40 times, compiled a maximum of seven first downs rushing and does not average more than four yards per carry.

A&M's ability to run the ball carries over to the rest of the team as well. Quarterback Jerrod Johnson generally averages 7.9 yards per attempt or better in A&M's wins. At a seven-yard per attempt average or less - normally indicative of a solid performance - A&M loses.

Regarding the secondary, A&M has given up a minimum of 8.5 yards per pass attempt in each of the five losses. Most teams are hitting a high percentage of their passes against the Aggies, which means that when A&M's secondary does not give up many big plays A&M's defense can hold the score down.

On Texas' part, the Longhorns simply haven't had too many games where they have been tested this season. Their three-point win over Oklahoma is the only game that they have won by less than double digits. It is even more impressive that Texas has had a 17-point lead at the half in all of its games save for Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

A look at those games indicates that Texas did several things below their usual standards. First off, Texas had a significant number of penalties, usually eight or more. As much as anything too many penalties indicate a lack of focus on the part of a team and even if the opposition has a lot of penalties, it takes time for Texas to overcome its own mistakes.

Second, Texas' offense revolves around the efficiency of Colt McCoy and its ability to make yards after the catch. In those four games, McCoy has a touchdown to interception ratio of only 7:4 and averaged less than seven yards per attempt. Not only that, Texas had only two passes of over 20 yards in those games. It's simply not enough for Texas to run the ball well which they did versus Oklahoma. As explosive as Texas' offense is, if it's unable to turn short catches into big gains their running game is not good enough to generate big plays.

Finally, Texas feasts on other team's mistakes on offense and special teams. The Longhorns rank in the top 15 nationally in punt returns, kickoff returns, sacks and turnover margin. Even when Texas isn't playing well as a whole, they can create points on special teams and defense that can put distance between them and an opponent. The Oklahoma game is the only game all year where Texas did not score on defense and special teams, and not coincidentally it's the only close game that they have played.

Texas' defense is good enough that it has been a constant (it ranks in the top 10 nationally in the country in most major statistical categories). But when Texas' offense sputters due to penalties and an inefficient passing game, Texas doesn't score a lot in the first half - just 36 points in those four halves.

In summary, here's what needs to happen on Thanksgiving night.

A&M has to hope that Texas is looking ahead to a BCS bowl, the Big 12 championship game or securing the Heisman for McCoy rather than playing a football game. To use a term found in tennis, Texas has to have some unforced errors.

A&M needs to stay with its running game (a minimum of 100 yards gained, which is what they rushed for in close losses against Oklahoma State and Colorado). This will open up things down the field via play action because that will be the easiest way for A&M to manufacture points.

Generate pressure on McCoy via Von Miller, the nation's leader in sacks, to ensure that Texas doesn't have time to get into a rhythm in its short passing game. They also can't have a game where they give up big plays in the secondary via poor tackling and missed assignments like they did in close games versus Colorado and Oklahoma State.

A&M needs to allow no touchdowns via special teams or defense. It's no coincidence that A&M's three blowout losses this year to Arkansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma involved returns for touchdowns by its opponents.

Finally, A&M needs to keep the game close in the first half so that a partisan Kyle Field crowd stays with them for 60 minutes.

A&M has cost Texas either BCS or New Year's Day bowl bids in 1979, 2006 and 2007 despite really not having anything to play for except a desire to beat their archrivals. The upset has happened before. It could happen again if enough goes A&M's way.


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