Defensive success starts with third downs

While redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M offense stole the show and filled the highlight reels in the Aggies' first win of the season, a 48-3 domination of SMU on Saturday, the other side of the ball had plenty of its own success.

When the Aggies' offense was struggling to move the football in the first quarter against the Mustangs, it was the defense that held SMU off the scoreboard in the meantime -- and out of the end zone completely.

"I think the story of the game is really how our defense played early," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They kept us not only in the game, but gave us some energy, too. We weren't hitting on all cylinders and couldn't hardly do anything on offense. I thought our defense really played very, very well and turned it into a field-position game."

One of Sumlin's statistical points of emphasis on defense is third-down conversion rate. It's no accident that as the Aggies have turned in two solid defensive performances in their first two games against SMU and Florida, that they've succeeded notably on third downs.

Against Florida, Texas A&M allowed only three third-down conversions in 12 tries. On Saturday against SMU, they limited the Mustangs to three conversions on 18 tries. Through two games, the Aggies are allowing teams to convert on third down a miniscule 20 percent of the time, good for eighth in the country in this young season.

Senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart attributes the success to what Texas A&M does before third down.

"Stopping the run," Stewart said. "Stopping the run on first down and they try to do a screen on second down, then its third-and-8-plus, it's easy for a defensive coordinator to call plays and it's tough for an offense. That was the key. Next week, if we're able to stop the run, we should have success like that again."

Last season,Texas A&M ranked 66th in the country, allowing opponents to convert third-down tries 40.4 percent of the time. Though early, the notable success this year has been a reason why the Aggies have allowed just 23 points in two games. The Aggies are allowing just 308 yards per game and 11.5 points per game so far.

Still, the players say there's room for continued improvement.

"(We're) a team that's improving," Stewart said. "Last week we made critical errors and it cost us the game. In college football, the game comes down to a handful of plays. Last week, Florida made those plays and we didn't. This week, it was the opposite. We just have to keep doing it and keep improving and keep getting better. To be a great defense we just have to do a whole bunch of little things right, just stack them all up on each other and then we'll be a very good defense."

Senior outside linebacker Sean Porter said it's early to read too much into the first two games.

"I think that once we get (further) into SEC play, we'll see how good we really are," Porter said.

"It wasn't perfect, but it was better. We still got a few little things to take care of. We didn't miss too many tackles from what I saw (against SMU). It's definitely an improvement and that's all you can ask for."

Stewart said the success on third down has to continue for the Aggies.

"We've got to do it again next week," he said. "We can't just be a one-hit wonder. We have to do it consistently."