Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 00:10
Head coach Kevin Sumlin says Auburn has a "new energy" as they visit Kyle Field this Saturday.
Last season on the road, Texas A&M exacted a dominating 63-21 victory over Southeastern Conference division rival Auburn, scoring at-will throughout the night on a Tiger squad in disarray under former head coach Gene Chizik.
One season later, Auburn prepares for a Saturday visit to Kyle Field under new leadership — Gus Malzahn — and a Tiger team with many of last year’s players.
A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin compared Auburn’s current team to last year’s surging Aggie squad, which finished the season 11-2 with an upset of top-ranked and future national champion Alabama.
“They’re 5-1, and they’re ranked 24th in the country,” Sumlin said. “They’re very different than the team we played last year. It’s a bit like where we were last year. They’ve got a new coach, new energy, new players and they’re playing with confidence. It might be the same guys, but it’s a completely different football team from an attitude standpoint.”
Sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel and A&M’s offensive system produced 49 points in just over two quarters of play last season, benching the future Heisman Trophy winner for the remainder of the game.
The offense’s high-production proved a blur even for current offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, who recalled the game’s decision only in flashes of the unit’s quick scoring capabilities.
“I don’t really remember a lot of the Auburn game last year,” McKinney said. “I thought the pregame atmosphere was probably the greatest I’ve seen when they release the eagle and the crowd goes crazy, but then we ran up and down the field on them. I don’t feel those players really wanted to play.”
A&M enters the game against Auburn — the first of a four-game home stand — coming off a 41-38, last second victory over Ole Miss on the road, which both the players and coach said helped mature the squad mentally.
Sumlin said the Aggies attempt to simulate possible situations in practice like the team faced last Saturday in Oxford, Miss., in order to be prepared for in-game crises.
“I would just say we put guys in those situations all the time,” Sumlin said. “You can’t simulate the pressure that’s in those situations all the time, but we take time to show other [games and] all the ways you can show guys what to do and how not to be ‘that guy.’”
Senior walk-on wide receiver Travis Labhart played a vital role in A&M’s success against the Rebels, as he caught a team-leading eight passes for 97 yards.
The walk-on’s performance came as no surprise to the rest of his teammates.
“If you know Labhart, that’s not shocking,” senior running back Ben Malena said. “It’s not shocking at all. He comes in and works every day and he’s a great-minded guy. Him stepping up and making catches is not surprising, but I’m really proud of him.”
McKinney said Labhart’s value came from his knowledge of all receiving positions, allowing him to step in anywhere on the field for an injured or unproductive starter.
“Spreading the ball around has to do with what the defenses are trying to take away,” McKinney said. “Take a guy like Mike Evans and the start to the year he had, so he’s got coverage rolling his way. Guys are having their opportunities. A guy like Labhart came in and learned every receiver spot, so he’s very valuable. You can put him out there at any spot and feel confident he’ll catch the ball.”
Defensively, the Aggies will face a spread offense under Malzahn with a heavy focus on the run game. As of last week, the Tigers rank seventh nationally in rushing yards per game with the backfield duo of quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, while only hitting 103rd in passing.
A&M senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said the Aggie defense’s experience with mobile quarterbacks in practice, such as Manziel and freshman back up Kenny Hill, allow the unit an edge heading into the matchup.
“We have one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the game and we practice against him every day,” Hurd said. “We have a great scheme and Coach Snyder always prepares us for whatever the other team has to offer us.”