Championship hopes on the lineNov. 12, 2010
By Matt Larsen
It's always a rivalry, but as both Baylor and Texas A&M put their chances (though slim) for a Big 12 championship on the line Saturday at 6 p.m. at Floyd Casey Stadium, the stakes have climbed unusually high for both squads.
"It's going to be an epic battle," head coach Art Briles said. "It's two really good football teams going at it really wanting the same thing."
Both teams must win out and have some help from two of three schools playing Oklahoma State -- Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma -- in order to overcome the conference-leading Cowboys.
When all the talk of which team must win "this" or lose "that" in order for the Bears or Aggies to play in the Big 12 Championship is put aside, though, what's left is a deep-seated, down-home Texas football rivalry known as the Battle of the Brazos.
"Everyone keeps talking to me about A&M coming [to town]," senior cornerback Clifton Odom said. "They play us tough every year and it's always a hard-fought game. We still have kind of a bad taste in our mouths from last year so we'll definitely be thinking about that."
Falling 38-3 to the Aggies in College Station a year ago, the Bears look forward to bringing the Battle of the Brazos back to Waco where they welcomed the Ags with a 41-21 win two years ago.
Both teams prefer to look at this season, though, considering that Baylor is having its best season since joining the Big 12 and A&M totes a three-game winning streak to Waco this Saturday after dropping its first two conference matches.
Despite throwing up numbers that turned eyes on a national level, A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson also threw up interceptions at head-turning rates.
After nine picks in seven games and a two-game streak where he committed 10 turnovers, Johnson gave way to Ryan Tannehill, who has since brought the balance of production through the air and protection of the football that the Aggies sought.
Tannehill has thrown nine touchdowns in the past three games while tossing only three picks.
"I guess the change kind of provided a little spark," Briles said. "He's very intelligent ... has the ability to make plays ... and is a [player] that guys will rally around a little bit. It is imperative that we get him out of a comfort zone."
Unlike some of the other high-octane Big 12 offenses, Tannehill heads an offensive unit that spreads the responsibility out over several of contributors.
Junior Jeff Fuller and sophomore Ryan Swope head the receiving core with 6.4 and 6.3 receptions per game respectively. Fuller leads the team in touchdowns with 11.
On the ground, the Aggies also feature two backs, spreading the handoffs between sophomore Christine Michael and junior Cyrus Gray.
Michael averages the most yards per game (78.9) while Gray has notched the most touchdowns (six).
As demonstrated by their balanced stats, Tannehill and company run a nearly perfectly balanced offense, having run just 10 more passing plays than running ones this season.
On the defensive side, the Aggies don't appear quite as balanced.
They lead the conference in rush defense as the only Big 12 team to hold its opponents under 100 yards rushing a game.
However, the teams that have beaten A&M (Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Missouri) have found ways to do so through the air.
The Cowboys, Razorbacks and Tigers each posted 284 yards and two touchdowns, the Razorbacks 310 yards and three TDs and the Tigers 361 yards and three endzone strikes.
Though it conceded 290 yards passing to Oklahoma in the 33-19 win last week, the Aggie defense dominated in the part of the field it has defended well all season: the redzone.
"That has been a really good area for them on their football team," Briles said.
"The defensive stands they had against Oklahoma [were] really impressive. A lot of it has to do with the scheme and the personnel and the energy that those guys are playing with right now."
The Aggies come to Waco playing confident on both sides of the ball.
Though his last two games were not his best performances, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III will likely enter with a renewed confidence after being informed through a letter he received this last week that he has been named a Heisman contender.
Griffin will need help to continue putting up the numbers that earned him that recognition and believes the line in front of him can hold off the aggressive Aggie defense led by defensive end Von Miller. "I don't try to avoid anyone." Griffin said.
"[Von] Miller is a great player, very quick, but we've got great players of our own. We've got Danny Watkins on the offensive line and numerous receivers on the outside that are perfectly capable and strong."