Arm in Arm
This is an article from the Nov. 6, 2006 issue
Thanks largely tooff-season gatherings that built team unity, Texas A&M is rocking at lastunder Dennis Franchione
THE SPARK forTexas A&M's surprising season was struck last December, after a bitterlydisappointing 5--6 campaign. That's when right guard Kirk Elder and a handfulof Aggies began talking about how to revive a team they felt was lackingcohesion. The group came up with an idea: house parties, albeit without kegsand coeds. Building Champions is what the players dubbed the bonding sessions,held every week from January through July. Elder hosted them at the ranch housein College Station that he shares with left tackle Corey Clark, defensive endChris Harrington and left guard Chris Yoder. "Just a bunch of guys gettingtogether, having Xbox tournaments," says Elder, who, like his housemates,is a redshirt junior. "Players only. If random people showed up, we kickedthem out."
The result of allthat Xboxing has been apparent, as the 21st-ranked Aggies (8--1) have proved tobe one of the most resilient teams in college football. Five of the Aggies'last six games have gone down to the wire—including wins over Army, Kansas,Missouri and Oklahoma State, as well as a loss to Texas Tech—and A&M hastrailed at some point in each of its last seven games. While their 31--21 winat Baylor last Saturday night didn't come down to the final possession, theAggies didn't exactly have a breather. Playing before the largest crowd inFloyd Casey Stadium history, A&M didn't put the Bears away until the finaltwo minutes, when freshman running back Mike Goodson scampered 64 yards downthe left sideline for a touchdown. "This is the first team I've had sinceI've been here that's had this sort of resolve to finish games," saysfourth-year coach Dennis Franchione, whose job was in jeopardy when the seasonbegan. "They've kept playing and believing."
The Aggies aren'tgetting by on camaraderie alone. The defense, which ranked 107th in the countrylast year, has improved under new coordinator Gary Darnell. The coach atWestern Michigan from 1997 through 2004, Darnell installed a 4-2-5 scheme,which allows A&M to employ multiple looks in the front six while coveringthe field with five defensive backs. This year the Aggies are 52nd in totaldefense. The offense revolves around sophomore quarterback Stephen McGee, who'saveraging nearly 200 yards passing and more than 50 yards rushing and might bethe best option quarterback in the nation. Behind him are a raft of talentedbacks, including the speedy Goodson and 276-pound tailback Jorvorskie Lane. Asoft-spoken sophomore and budding ophiologist—his pet boa constrictor is namedBo—Lane leads the Big 12 in scoring with 17 touchdowns. "We have runningbacks who could get more carries," says Franchione. "We have widereceivers who could demand more catches. But not once has anybody asked formore. These kids are so close."
"It's been adifferent guy who's made the difference in every game," says senior wideoutChad Schroeder. "We're feeding off each other."
That wasn'talways the case. Many of the upperclassmen on last year's team had beenrecruited by Franchione's predecessor, R.C. Slocum, who was fired in December2002. The commitment of a handful of those players to Franchione's system wasuneven at best, and Elder says that spotty attendance at voluntary workouts wasa problem in the summer of '05. "Those workouts aren't just about gettingstronger," he says. "They're about accountability."
The Aggies'all-for-one attitude this season is about to be tested in a serious way. Theyclose with home dates against No. 18 Oklahoma and Nebraska in the next twoweeks and a season-ending tilt at No. 4 Texas on Nov. 24. There were rumblingsof discontent from fans concerned about the team's play during their softnonconference schedule. But by winning eight games Franchione, who's record atA&M is 24--20, has probably earned at least one more season on thesideline. "The only opinions we care about are the ones in the lockerroom," McGee said last week. "We play for each other."
By virtue of its 34--20 victory over Sun Belt favorite Louisiana-Lafayette lastSaturday, Middle Tennessee State, which started playing Division I-A footballin 1999, is 5--3 (4--0 in conference) and one win from being in line to accepta bowl bid. Six schools that haven't been to a bowl in more than a decade havethe requisite six victories or are one victory away.