COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It has been a season of challenges for the Texas A&M defense.
The basic numbers, which are well-documented, aren't good. The Aggies are 113th in total defense nationally (474.3 yards allowed per game) and 104th in rushing defense (201.17) while allowing 32 points per game.
But for all the criticism the Texas A&M defense endured this season, and for Saturday's performance in particular, there are recent signs of progress for the much-maligned unit. In Texas A&M's last two games the defense got key stops late to help the Aggies secure victory. Against Arkansas on Sept. 28, the Razorbacks pulled to within five points of Texas A&M on three separate occasions in the second half. The Aggies' defense responded with a stop each time.
On Saturday against Ole Miss, after allowing three consecutive touchdown drives and four Rebels touchdowns in a stretch of five second-half possessions, the unit buckled down when it had to, forcing a three-and-out on the Rebels' final possession late in the fourth quarter. That got the ball back to the offense, which drove downfield and set up a game-winning field goal attempt for Josh Lambo.
"The kids had a lot of belief," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of the fourth-quarter stop. "We knew we needed a stop, especially the way our offense was playing. I thought the kids did a good job. They adjusted, checked to the formation. I believe they were trying to go four vertical and we kind of took that away and were able to get off the field."
In fact, Snyder said he was pleased with several aspects of the Aggies' performance on Saturday. The first half was a solid one for the group, as they allowed just 10 points on five Ole Miss possessions. Through three quarters, the unit forced three punts, a turnover on downs and an interception in eight possessions. Though they allowed 297 yards in the first three quarters, it translated to just 17 points for the Rebels at that time.
But the fourth quarter became a different story. The Rebels had three consecutive touchdown drives and 165 yards in the quarter. Ole Miss ate up large chunks of yardage, hitting plays 21, 21, 19 and 50 yards, respectively. They succeeded on too many of what Snyder calls "explosive plays."
"Coach Snyder always talks about 'Let's not give up explosives, because if we don't give up explosives against a lot of teams, we can shut down a lot of teams,'" sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "Monday he pulls up the stats and shows us how we do and he showed us that our explosives were way too high and if we take away all of our explosives and big plays and critical errors, we would have held Ole Miss to about 250 or 260 yards, which is a good game for a defense. We just need to eliminate big plays."
Texas A&M has certainly had its fair share of issues when it comes to allowing big plays. This season, the Aggies have allowed 10 or more yards on 22.5 percent of plays it's faced, which ranks 105th in the nation.
Youth and inexperience continues to factor into the Aggies' success, or lack thereof, defensively. With 11 freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart, there are some issues that are a byproduct of players simply not having enough playing time. But because the talent level of those freshmen is high and other factors, including injuries, the Aggies are having to endure those growing pains.
And it has been rare that the Aggies have had consistency in its starting defensive personnel from week to week.
On Saturday, the Aggies had to finish the game minus their best defensive player, Deshazor Everett, because of an injury sustained in the first half. His status for this Saturday's game against Auburn is uncertain, though it wouldn't be surprising to see him suit up since he tried to make an effort to get back into the Ole Miss game. They were already without starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. That meant the Aggies were operating without two of their better defensive players in crunch time on Saturday.
Even with those issues, one of the most important areas to head coach Kevin Sumlin and his coaching staff hasn't been as bad as the other aforementioned statistics. The Aggies are allowing third-down conversions 39.5 percent of the time (72nd nationally). It isn't quite as good as last season (32.4 percent, 16th) but it hasn't been as bleak as some of the other areas.
The key for the Aggies moving forward is improving in that area and taking what they did in the first three quarters or the final drive against Ole Miss -- or in the aforementioned instances at Arkansas -- and making it happen for four quarters.
"That's the key, consistency," Snyder said. "It was a little bit different game this week. I thought we played pretty decent for about three quarters. Then in the fourth quarter, we were just bad, period. We had been pretty good in the second half. That's what we keep talking to these guys about, consistency. Let's play an entire game."
They also have to get better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, something the Aggies have struggled mightily at doing this season. Their five sacks tie them for 118th in the country.
"The one thing I challenged our guys with is we have to get some pass rush," Snyder said. " I understand it's difficult with the type of offenses that we're facing...[but] we need to generate some pass rush without me having to make a [blitz] call to generate that pass rush."
Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said the group simply needs to continue to work at it all of these things.
"It's just timing," Hurd said. "We just have to keep working on our timing, fitting our gaps and just becoming a sound defense. Do all the little things right and the big picture will be better in the end if we do the little things right in the beginning."