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Aggies Fall at No. 19 Utah in Season Opener

Special to the N.E.T. Sports Gazette

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - Utah quarterback Alex Smith threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more as the 19th-ranked Utes opened their season with a 41-21 victory over Texas A&M Thursday in the season opener for both schools.

Coming off a 10-2 season, the Utes made the preseason rankings for the first time in school history. One of those losses was to the Aggies, in which quarterback Brett Elliott broke his wrist.

That opened up things for Smith, who went 9-1 the rest of the way, leading Utah to the Mountain West Conference title. He picked up where he left off. He completed 21-of-29 passes for 359 yards and had touchdown runs of seven and 37 yards.

Three of Smith's scores came in the first half, when Utah bolted to a 27-0 lead.

Midway through the third quarter, Smith's 37-yard TD run on third down made it 34-7.

Utah's defense was just as sharp as the offense as it extended its shutout streak to nearly 12 quarters before quarterback Reggie McNeal raced 59 yards for a score to finally get the Aggies on the board.

McNeal went 14-of-35 for 210 yards on the evening. The Aggies punted on nine of their first 10 possessions.

Smith wasted no time picking on A&M, finding Steve Savoy on a crossing route that the receiver turned into a 78-yard TD pass just 73 seconds into the game. Savoy caught five passes for 108 yards.

On the first play of the second quarter, Savoy took a shotgun reverse and scampered nine yards for a score, making it 14-0.

Smith set up his seven-yard TD keeper with a 45-yard pass to Travis LaTendresse midway through the period. Less than four minutes later, he used a play fake and found John Madsen alone up the right sideline for a 38-yard TD toss.

Utah had 318 yards in the first half and 582 overall.

McNeal rushed for 84 yards and two scores on 13 carries for A&M, which had 437 yards, most of them after the contest was decided.


Wrecking Crew's Got A Long Way To Go

Special to the N.E.T. Sports Gazette

COLLEGE STATION, Texas- Coming out of spring practice, defensive coordinator Carl Torbush prefaced his cautious observations about the defense with a blanket statement, “We made a great deal of improvement this spring.”

He followed immediately with probably the most time-worn phrase in coaching, “We have a long way to go…,” though he added a caveat that a hopeful Aggieland longs for, “…but we have more pieces to the puzzle in place.”

And even more pieces fit in with the expected influx of four junior college linebackers.

Factor into the equation how quickly the new, but experienced linebackers from juco and eight redshirt freshmen can learn and adapt to the highest level of competition in the country, and whether an incoming freshman or two might surface quickly as well and contribute to much-needed depth.

That’s a lot to ask or expect. But a stark, harsh fact is that there’s scarcely any way to go but up. The 2003 defense wasn’t just stripped of the storied “Wrecking Crew” moniker earned by years of stingy and bell-ringing defenses, which Torbush said the unit will have to earn back; it was shredded by dire, record-setting statistics and scores that led to bending, breaking, and blowouts in eight defeats.

On paper, the Aggies have quite a bit of experience to draw from. The same sheet of paper contains designations that erode some of the experience factor – size, stopwatch times, and walk-on status. At one point last season four of the eight linebackers in regular rotation were walk-ons, for example. Hence, the recruiting binge at LB (five signed).

Any positives that Torbush and the defensive staff of line coach Stan Eggen, cornerbacks coach Chris Thurmond, and safeties coach Melvin Smith felt were prefaced on two things – the second year in the system, and the promising talent displayed by eight redshirt freshmen and a couple of seasoned players who changed positions.

Dealing from strength, the Aggie defense brings five players who started all 12 games last season, four players who were in regular rotation on the d-line (the coaches prefer eight), and five defensive backs who appeared consistently in the multiple defenses that featured a lot of nickel and dime packages.

An added strength last spring was not only the talent level of five greenhorn defensive backs and four d-linemen, but also, from Torbush’s perspective, “Without question (the inexperienced players) add much more athleticism and the energy level and enthusiasm picked up tremendously because of them.”

Position changes by two seniors looking for a way to get off the bench and contribute brought a new, improved look to spring practice, too. Keelan Jackson moved from safety to linebacker, lending additional speed to the outside edge. Thomas Carriger brought strength and size to the middle of the line after at tight end. They both had a productive spring.

The shifting of personnel and an increased speed of the game, attributed largely to the confidence level brought by familiarity with the system, gave rise to Torbush assessing, “We have greatly increased our production and ability to make a play.”

He added, “A year in the system made us better. The fat has been trimmed, and those who want to be part of this foundation are working hard and believing in what it takes.”

However rejuvenated the Aggies appear, a “Wrecking Crew” usually has a smattering of all-this-or-that” candidates, prime-time playmakers. Some Aggies show potential for that, such as senior Jaxson Appel at free safety and Montgomery at defensive end.

One final point of emphasis for Coach Torbush: call his defense “Multiple,” not “4-3.”

Fact is, despite continual references to the 4-3 formation, inferring a drastic change from the Aggie past, the defensive breakdown show that A&M worked out of the 4-3 barely half the time. “We teach out of the 4-3, but we change up constantly and actually try to disguise what we’re in,” Torbush explained. “We’re definitely not any one thing.”

In the spring the defense worked on more coverage packages, more blitz packages, and spent an inordinate amount of time on tackling, tackling, and tackling. Also, a period each day was dedicated to forcing takeaways, a factor that head coach Dennis Franchione believes can make a 1-2 game difference in the season.

The main lingering question remains, how relative will all the improvement become with a season looming that brings two preseason ranked teams – Utah and Clemson, the latter with a Heisman hopeful quarterback – and the defending Big 12 champions, Kansas State, in the first month, and the power-packed Big 12 South after that?

That brings back the refrain: “….a long way to go.”

Sunday Sept. 5, 2004

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Copyright 2002-2004 The North East Texas Sports Gazette

Member Texas Sports Writers Association, Football Writers of America Association