The Texas A&M defense had a statement game last Saturday, Sept. 11, against Colorado, holding the Buffaloes to only one score, allowing just 54 total second-half yards and forcing Colorado to go 0-6 on second-half third-down conversions. It will now turn to face New Mexico, which scored 61 points to start with an undefeated record and features a familiar face at quarterback in senior Kentucky transfer Terry Wilson Jr.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher said the New Mexico Lobos will be a great opponent and hopes the Aggies will play as they did in the second half in Denver.
“New Mexico is going to be a really good opponent, and we're going to have to play very well,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we can bring our A-game, learn to start fast, finish stronger and play a complete football game.”
Wilson is in his first year as a Lobo after starting in 25 games in three years at Kentucky, where he ranks second in program history in wins as starting quarterback and third in completion percentage. A&M faced him back in the 2018 season in an overtime thriller that saw the Aggies upset the ranked Wildcats, but Wilson went 13-of-20 for 108 yards in an offense that mainly featured its run game with now-Pittsburgh Steeler Benny Snell. This season, Wilson gets to run the New Mexico offense and has starred through two games with six passing touchdowns and no interceptions.
Fisher said Wilson is very athletic as a signal-caller, believing the A&M defense will have to be smart and deliberate against New Mexico’s offense.
“[Wilson’s] athletic as heck, [he] can run, if we slip up one second he's around the corner,” Fisher said. “They're all over the place. You've got to be really disciplined and honed into the different types of runs, options and screens.”
Fortunately for the Aggies, A&M currently has the No. 3 passing defense in the country with sophomore defensive back Antonio Johnson continuing to impress with a career-high nine tackles and two pass breakups against Colorado. A&M is also the 16th-ranked red zone defense in the nation through two weeks.
Johnson, who Fisher said was one of the team’s players of the week against the Buffaloes, said he doesn’t feel like the season now depends on the entire defensive unit after redshirt freshman quarterback Haynes King’s injury. Instead, it simply showed how unified both sides of the ball are, he said.
“I wouldn't say the season is on our shoulders,” Johnson said. “Like I said earlier, there's going to be games where we struggle, and there's going to be games where the offense struggles. We always talk about unity. You've got to be able to be there for each other, and we showed that the defense was there for the offense last week.”
The defense will have to “be there” again, as the Lobos have run a potent offense, producing 434 yards per game with fair balance between the passing and rushing attacks. Their ground game goes through running backs Bobby Cole and Aaron Dumas, and Wilson has targeted a multitude of receivers through the air. Against New Mexico State, senior receiver Emmanuel Logan-Greene and redshirt sophomore receiver Andrew Erickson led the way with 12 combined receptions for 181 yards and two scores.
Fisher said the Lobos will be a good test for the defense because of Cole, who averages 4.6 yards per carry through 30 rushes, and Logan-Greene, who has dangerous straight-line speed on the outside, best seen by his return ability. In Colorado’s recent win, Logan-Greene finished with seven catches for 106 yards and a score; he also returned a punt for 53 yards just one week after returning another punt for 32 yards.
“It ain’t no tune-up, it’s going to be a game,” Fisher said. “They are pain-in-the-tail guys, I keep saying it. Their [running] back’s a good player, they’ve got a receiver and returner that [averages] almost 40-some yards per return.”
While A&M struggled defending the run through two games, there is reason for optimism. Senior defensive lineman Micheal Clemons returned against Colorado, and sophomore defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson returns from suspension this week, Fisher announced on Sept. 13. Clemons and Jackson were starters in last year’s very successful run defense. Of course, there is also the reigning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week in senior Jayden Peevy, who set a career-high in tackles with seven and also grabbed his first career interception against Colorado.
Fisher said the unit as a whole has the potential to “be special” as more players like Clemons and Jackson return.
“When we play with discipline and intensity and purpose, when we understand the urgency, I think we are a really, really good defensive football team,” Fisher said. “The defense can be a very, very good unit, in my opinion, especially as we continue to get guys back.”
A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense can certainly slow Wilson and the rest of an interesting Lobos offense that intimidates with speed and experience. However, A&M’s defense will have to replicate its second-half successes from Colorado, where it remained disciplined at the line of scrimmage against the run while locking down passing lanes and containing the quarterback.