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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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War Hymn vs. War Eagle

Coming+in+from+both+sides%2C+senior+Michael+Clemons%26%23160%3Band+sophomore+Jaylon+Jones%26%23160%3Btake+down+the+Auburn+offense.
Photo by Photo by Ishika Samant

Coming in from both sides, senior Michael Clemons and sophomore Jaylon Jones take down the Auburn offense.

As Texas A&M football prepares to open SEC play against Auburn, the list of changes both programs have undergone since the teams met last season is long enough to stretch from Texas to Alabama. The two programs, both with six wins against each other, will meet at Kyle Field on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 11 a.m.
The Aggies and Tigers met on Nov. 12, 2022, with the understanding that the losers would have their hopes of salvaging the season with a bowl game dashed. The two entered on five-game losing skids with a mission to stay out of the conference’s basement.
In a game in which both offenses took the night off, Auburn eked out a 13-10 win that saw A&M tally just 215 yards of offense while all but ensuring a losing season for the Maroon and White.
Fast forward a year, and it’s safe to say A&M and Auburn are feeling a bit more optimistic about the future.
Bobby Petrino was hired in the offseason as a remedy for those offensive woes and has more than lived up to his billing, with the Aggies averaging 44 points a game for the 12th-highest in the country. That number is double what the offense produced last year, as an experienced and electric stable of receivers has led the way.
Despite an early stumble at Miami, A&M’s defense has shown signs of life as well, far from its form in 2022 when it struggled to get off the field. In the team’s two wins against New Mexico and Louisiana-Monroe, the opponents scored just a combined 13 points.
Yes, it may only be New Mexico and Louisiana-Monroe, two teams that have sat near the bottom of their respective conferences for much of the past decade. But what sets these non-conference games apart from those of years’ past is that the Aggies took care of business and played in a manner expected of them.
A&M’s season-opening 31-0 shutout of Sam Houston State looked good from a defensive standpoint, but left a lot to be desired on the other side of the ball last season. Those concerns came to fruition a week later when Appalachian State came into Kyle Field and left with a 17-14 victory that encapsulated the 5-7 season for the Aggies. Heck, they even struggled against lowly UMass, as the day’s rainy conditions matched the play on the field in a 20-3 win.
Looking upon last season as a basis, beating the Lobos 52-10 and taking down the Warhawks 47-3 were victories that should be celebrated. A&M learned that no win should be taken for granted, particularly in the gauntlet of the SEC.
Last season’s loss to the Tigers saw a handful of freshmen earn playing time, although perhaps more out of necessity than anything else due to a rash of injuries. Those freshmen included now-sophomore quarterback Conner Weigman, who completed just 14 of 36 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown while being sacked three times.
“My head was spinning, trying to figure out what was going on,” Weigman said. “[Now I have] a way better grasp of the offense and knowing what defenses are trying to do to confuse me — just having a better grasp of pretty much all aspects.”
What a difference an offseason makes, as that bright-eyed freshman has transformed into a leader on an A&M offense looking to prove doubters wrong this year. Weigman has completed 70.5% of his passes with eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions while rushing for two more scores.
That growth hasn’t stopped on the field, as Weigman has earned praise from coach Jimbo Fisher and his teammates for his leadership qualities and motivation on the sideline. The signal-caller was seen during the ULM game keeping his teammates locked in and focused on the bench.
“I feel like it’s always been there with whatever sport I’m playing — football, baseball, basketball growing up,” Weigman said. “Like coach Fisher always preaches, we’ve got to play well all four quarters and just because we’re winning a game, we can’t let up. We’ve got to go out and execute the game plan and what coach Petrino’s calling.”
For the Aggies to put together a successful year, an offseason culture change was needed. To put it simply, A&M needed an attitude adjustment, one that views losses as a learning opportunity while keeping the players’ minds focused on the game ahead.
“I feel like the losses last year really brought our team down a little bit,” sophomore defensive lineman LT Overton said. “You can really see the change in maturity of our team this year. I feel like after that loss to Miami, now we know that’s not all we have. We know what type of potential we have, we know what we can do. It’s just, ‘What are we going to take out of that loss?’”
If last Saturday was any indication, that new mentality has been put in action already, as A&M put forth a complete effort in a strong rebound from the loss to Miami.
“I feel like last year we didn’t take that loss to App. State pretty good, but this year, that early loss, we’re really taking it well, as we should,” Overton said.
Differences from last season’s matchup don’t end with the Aggies. The Tigers, shaking off a 5-7 campaign of their own, reeled in former Ole Miss and Liberty coach Hugh Freeze during the offseason to make his return to the SEC. Freeze led the Rebels to a No. 3 national ranking and a 39-25 record over five seasons before being forced to resign due to personal misconduct.
Freeze was 3-2 versus A&M while at Ole Miss, although two of those wins have been vacated for recruiting violations. Fisher and Freeze met each other on the gridiron in 2016 when Fisher’s Florida State opened the season against Ole Miss. Fisher and the Seminoles stormed back from a 28-6 deficit to come out with a 45-34 victory.
“Hugh’s going to be aggressive on offense,” Fisher said. “He’s going to be dynamic, he’s going to create things. [On] special teams, [he’s] not afraid to call a fake, not afraid to do things. Very good coach, gonna have his guys motivated and ready to play.”
Auburn suffocated A&M last season with a rushing attack that tallied 270 yards, compared to just 60 through the air. This season, with Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne under center, the Tigers have been more well-rounded, averaging 215.7 yards on the ground and 212.3 passing yards per game.
Last season’s starting quarterback, sophomore Robby Ashford, is now used primarily to run the ball, with 15 carries and six passes through three games. The strategy has worked thus far, with four touchdowns coming with his legs. Thorne isn’t afraid to run the ball either, with two touchdown runs of his own while averaging 6.4 yards a carry.
Both teams will look to begin the conference slate on a good note on Saturday. While one team will take the next stop in a comeback season, the other may have to reevaluate expectations for this year.

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