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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A&M’s defense looks to turn corner as it tangles with run-heavy Tigers

Sophomore+DL+Tyrek+Chapell+%287%29+passes+the+ball+to+the+refs+during+a+game+against+Florida+on+Saturday%2C+Nov.+5%2C+2022+at+Kyle+Field
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Sophomore DL Tyrek Chapell (7) passes the ball to the refs during a game against Florida on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Kyle Field

It’s often said that “defense wins championships,” and while the Texas A&M football team is nowhere near that level of success, the Aggies could use a win now more than ever. 

Since falling to Florida 41-24 last week, the sense of urgency within the program has ramped up tenfold, as the maroon and white sit at 3-6 entering their matchup with Auburn on Saturday, Nov. 12, in Auburn, Ala. This means A&M must win its remaining three games this season in order to qualify for a bowl game. As the team closes out the season with the Tigers, UMass and No. 7 LSU, it’s time for the Aggies to play their best ball of the season. 

“You always need a win, you need a win every week,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I don’t know if it’s any worse than any time else, because, to me, I need a win every time I play … You’ve got to play the moment, play the game, get the results you want based on how you perform each and every week.”

Key to such a turnaround will be the Aggies’ defense turning a corner as well. A week after giving up 390 rushing yards in a 31-28 loss to Ole Miss at home, the unit surrendered 492 total yards to the Gators. Florida scored on all but two possessions in the first half, one of which came just a minute before halftime. The visitors went on to score 21 unanswered points to close out the game. 

Of course, it didn’t help that much of A&M’s roster was depleted due to, in addition to other factors, an outbreak of flu among the team. As a result, freshman defensive back Bryce Anderson was unavailable. Junior defensive back Antonio Johnson was out once again due to injury, as well.

“You miss him; he’s a great player, and you miss his leadership,” Fisher said of Johnson. “He’s working his tail off [to get back on the field] … He’s one of the guys pushing guys, being a great leader when he’s not out there playing, and hopefully we can get him back out there.”

The Aggies’ injury troubles continued, as Fisher announced after Saturday’s game that sophomore defensive lineman Fadil Diggs and sophomore defensive back Deuce Harmon will be out for the remainder of the season due to injury. And let’s not forget the suspension of freshman defensive back Denver Harris. 

Coupled with Fisher’s statement on Monday that there are still ramifications of the flu outbreak, it’s evident that A&M’s defensive depth is significantly limited. So much so that walk-on senior linebacker Sam Mathews was forced to step up and enter the last game, finishing with six total tackles. Out of high school, the League City native played quarterback at Division II Harding University in Arkansas for a year before choosing to attend A&M and try out for the team. 

“I really found a role on the team being a special teams guy, and I took it seriously,” Mathews said. “You never know where things can go, so just grinding and being in the right spot on special teams, that led … to them having the confidence to put me in with the starting defense on Saturday against Florida, which was crazy to me … My last defensive snap before coming to A&M was freshman year of high school.”

While the status of some of the defense’s starters remains unknown going into this weekend, things haven’t been all bad for the unit this season despite a rough past two weeks. The Aggies rank 11th in the nation in passing yards allowed with an average of 173.6 yards per game, while their 23.2 points allowed per game are tied for 46th in the country. Opponents have only scored on two-thirds of their red zone trips, tied for the fifth-best rate in football.

“We’ve been harping on missed tackles, just being in the right spot to fit the run, having eyes on the quarterback ready to break,” Mathews said. “It’s all stuff that we take seriously and harp on during practice, so during the game, we can get it right … It’s going to take a whole lot more buying into the process, because the talent is there.”

Luckily for A&M, they get to take on an Auburn squad that ranks 11th in the SEC with an average score of 24 points per game — we’ll look past the fact that the Aggies rank dead last. The Tigers find themselves in the same situation as A&M, sitting at 3-6 and needing to win their final three games to make a bowl berth. Thus, Saturday’s matchup can be viewed as a de facto elimination game for the loser. 

Coincidentally, Auburn is also looking to snap a five-game losing streak. After firing head coach Bryan Harsin after a 9-12 record in 21 games, the Tigers promoted running backs coach Carnell Williams to interim head coach, who led the team from a 21-point deficit against Mississippi State to force overtime before falling 39-33. Not a bad debut, to say the least. 

“Offensively, for us, it’s going to be a lot better,” Williams said. “We can have some time to — not making excuses — truly have a whole week to really watch Texas A&M and come up with a plan.”

The Aggies must be prepared to stop the run game against Auburn, something that has been their weakness in the past several games. The Tigers boast two feature running backs along with a quarterback that knows how to use his legs. Redshirt freshman signal-caller Robby Ashford, despite completing just 32% of his passes for 75 yards against the Bulldogs, ran for 108 yards, including four sacks and two scores. 

Meanwhile, junior running back Tank Bigsby and sophomore tailback Jarquez Hunter compose a dangerous duo for Auburn as they combined for 143 yards and each had a touchdown last week. Bigsby’s eight rushing touchdowns rank fourth in the SEC, while Hunter’s six have him tied for sixth. Ashford is right behind with five touchdowns. The Tigers rank last in the conference in passing yards with just 201.4 per game but are eighth in the SEC with 181.1 yards on the ground per contest.

“Tank [Bigsby], he’s one of the best backs not only in the SEC, but in this country,” Fisher said. “I’ve had great respect for him and the way he runs the football ever since I’ve watched him play. He’s physical, he’s tough, he’s got great speed and can make you miss. Ashford, so athletic and can make you move, can get on the edge, can throw it and do the things they do.”

Saturday’s contest will serve as a make-or-break point for the Aggies and their postseason aspirations. For A&M to prolong these postseason hopes and avoid simply playing for pride, a strong defensive effort against the rushing attack will be necessary. It could very well be the difference between a bowl berth and sitting on the couch at home, watching it on TV.

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