While Johnny Manziel can’t be blamed for last week’s loss to the nation’s No. 1 team, the Texas A&M defense certainly could be.
It would be hard to imagine either having a tough time Saturday night with a major drop-off in competition, a visiting SMU team the 10th-ranked Aggies have dominated the past two years.
This is the same opponent against which Manziel got his first victory with a breakout performance, throwing for 294 yards and rushing for 124 while totaling six touchdowns in a 48-3 road win last Sept. 15. A year earlier without him, Texas A&M (2-1) rolled to a 46-14 home victory over SMU (1-1).
It seems likely the Aggies will have another big day offensively against the Mustangs, who return from their bye week after surrendering averages of 35.5 points and 419.5 yards to Texas Tech and Montana State.
Then again, the Texas A&M defense hasn’t been any better, giving up 36.0 points and 489.0 yards per game. The first two games came against inferior foes - Rice and Sam Houston State - but without many key defensive players who were suspended. That unit was back at full strength last Saturday but had to face top-ranked Alabama, which rolled up 568 yards and won 49-42.
“We’ve got to get some things shored up in our front defensively,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We’ll be fine schematically. We’ve got to get our guys playing a little bit better.”
Manziel couldn’t have played much better other than eliminating his two interceptions.
The Heisman Trophy winner threw for a school-record 464 yards and totaled 562 for the second-best performance in SEC history. He had five touchdown passes as Texas A&M became the first team since LSU in 2007 to score 40 versus the Tide, and its 628 total yards were the most ever against Alabama.
“This isn’t the end of our season,” Manziel said. “This wasn’t the Super Bowl. This wasn’t the last game of the season … you never know how things will turn out. All we can do is take care of ourselves and continue to get better as a team.”
The defense certainly needs to do that, and the Aggies are confident that can happen as they continue working linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and cornerbacks De’Vante Harris and Deshazor Everett back into the mix.
“I feel like we communicated well. We just have to have better eyes and we just have to fill our gaps better,” senior defensive back Toney Hurd said. “That was actually the first game that the starting 11 on defense played together.
“… Our confidence right now is not at an all-time high, but each and every week it will get greater as we play together more and more.”
One player who has improved each week is sophomore Mike Evans, who had a school-record 279 yards receiving last Saturday and leads the nation with 518. The 6-foot-5 wideout, who has 20 receptions and three touchdowns in 2013, had 123 yards in last year’s win over SMU.
The Manziel-Evans duo has given Texas A&M a chance to open a season with four straight 40-point games for the first time.
SMU’s offense also has been fairly potent, averaging 475.5 yards behind ex-Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert. The son of former NFL backup signal-caller Gale Gilbert is fourth in the FBS with 352.5 passing yards per game without an interception.
Gilbert’s lone touchdown pass came in the team’s most recent game Sept. 7 and was a big one. He hit Darius Joseph from 4 yards out with 12 seconds left to give the Mustangs a 31-30 win over Montana State, then ranked No. 3 in the FCS.
Gilbert was sacked four times last year against Texas A&M, completing just 23 of 49 passes for 203 yards with no TDs and one interception.
The Aggies are 11-0-1 against their former Southwest Conference rival since 1984.