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The Battalion

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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Defense steps up as A&M fries Arkansas 34-22 in Arlington

Photo by Photo by Ishika Samant

Junior LB Edgerrin Cooper (45) and junior DL Fadil Diggs (10) celebrate after a third down stop during the Southwest Classic against Arkansas on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Ishika Samant/The Battalion)

In the week leading up to Texas A&M football’s matchup with Arkansas, junior linebacker Edgerrin Cooper made a change to his X profile picture. The Louisiana native added a photo of him showcasing a wild hog he had taken down, perhaps in reference to the Razorbacks the Aggies would figuratively hunt on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Cooper’s performance against the Hogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington matched the way he literally hunts them, as he led a stout A&M defensive effort in a 34-22 win in the Southwest Classic. Cooper collected two of the Aggies’ seven sacks while tallying a team-high six tackles for A&M’s 11th win over Arkansas in the last 12 years.

“[Cooper’s] eyes are in a good place,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He’s seeing it. His eye discipline and his eye control, being able to trigger and react. He’s so athletic and can get to Point A very quickly, and he’s physical. When the front guys are causing the chaos they are, a backer like him is hard to get your hands on, and he makes a lot of plays.”

The Aggies held the Razorbacks to just 174 yards compared to the 414 the Maroon and White racked up. Arkansas managed just 50 yards in the second half as redshirt senior quarterback KJ Jefferson struggled to use his strong legs and frame to his advantage.

“All these years I’ve been at Texas A&M, compared to this year, the culture of all of us getting together, we really want to dominate anyone who steps in front of us,” Cooper said. “That’s what I like, and it’s finally coming up, and we’re going to take it week by week.”

Cooper received plenty of help from a talented defensive line and improving secondary that kept the passing game in check, limiting Jefferson to 132 yards through the air. A year after wearing down A&M with 105 rushing yards and a touchdown, he was held to negative 3 yards on the ground.

“[Jefferson] kills you scrambling and dumping the ball off and making the big runs,” Fisher said. “They did it with the integrity and the discipline to not let him out of the pocket and did a really good job once they got their hands on him, because KJ [Jefferson] is an extremely tough guy to get on the ground.”

It wasn’t long ago — three weeks, to be exact — that the Aggies’ defense came under fire for its poor tackling and struggles against the passing attack in a 48-33 loss to Miami. Since then, the unit limited its last three opponents to under 21 offensive points.

“We’re doing a good job,” Fisher said. “We’re getting the right calls. [Defensive coordinator] DJ [Durkin] is doing a good job of getting calls. He’s mixing pressure with bluffs, but some of the bluffs are allowing you to get to the one-on-one matchups you want up front and be able to do it.”

On the other side of the ball, sophomore quarterback Max Johnson looked cool, calm and collected in his first game since taking over the starting position for injured sophomore Conner Weigman. Two turnovers may cast a shadow on his performance, but Johnson nonetheless played with efficiency in passing for two touchdowns and 210 yards.

Johnson showcased that efficiency on the Aggies’ first possession, completing all five passes before dropping a well-placed ball into the hands of streaking sophomore wide receiver Evan Stewart 32 yards down the right sideline for the game’s first touchdown.

After beginning the half with a strike to arguably the team’s most electric receiver, Johnson changed his approach to end it. In the waning seconds of the second quarter, the signal-caller faked a handoff and tossed the ball to graduate fullback Earnest Crownover for a 2-yard score that put the Aggies up 17-6 at the half.

A&M entered the second half with momentum after receiving the kickoff, but Arkansas took it right back with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown by redshirt junior defensive back Lorando Johnson on the first play of the half. On a screen pass intended for sophomore running back Le’Veon Moss, Lorando cut in front and effortlessly carried the rock to the end zone to bring the Razorbacks within 17-13.

However, the Aggies’ defense showed it could get in on the scoring fun as well with a pick-six of its own with five minutes to go in the third quarter. Leading 20-16, A&M received a major boost from senior linebacker Chris Russell Jr.’s interception return on a ball deflected by sophomore defensive back Bryce Anderson.

Max led a balanced A&M attack alongside Moss, whose 107 rushing yards were a key contributor to A&M’s average of 6.2 yards per play. Graduate wide receiver Ainias Smith reeled in four catches for 71 yards to pace the receiving corps, but his most electric play came as a punt returner.

As the Aggies led 27-16 with 8 minutes remaining, Smith muffed an Arkansas punt before recovering at the A&M 18-yard line. Rather than fall on the ball, Smith picked it up and returned it 82 yards to the house, crossing from one side of the field to the other and dodging would-be tacklers.

The score took on added significance for Smith, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against Arkansas in 2022. Smith said he returned to A&M for one more season with “unfinished business.” As the Aggies enter Week 6 of the season with a 2-0 mark in conference play for the first time in the Fisher era, they’ve shown they can make noise in the SEC this season.

The road doesn’t get any easier for A&M with next weekend’s home bout with No. 12 Alabama. Kickoff from Kyle Field is set for 2:30 p.m.

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About the Contributor
Luke White
Luke White, Sports Editor
Luke White is a senior telecommunication media studies major and sport management minor from Round Rock, Texas. He has served as head sports editor since May 2023.
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