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TEXAS A&M

A&M hopes to explode on Huskers

Aggies look to iron out passing woes against reeling Nebraska


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, October 20, 2007

LINCOLN, Neb. — In Texas A&M's football vocabulary, they're called "explosives."

No, they're not the bombshells dropped lately about secret e-mails and Coach Dennis Franchione's future.

David J. Phillip
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee is taking a beating running the ball, but coaches don't think that's why their passing game is struggling.

David J. Phillip
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Even with sturdy running backs like Mike Goodson, above, scoring a touchdown against Baylor in September, and Jorvorskie Lane, the Aggies' leading rusher is quarterback Stephen McGee, not the ideal situaton for the A&M offense.

To the Aggies, "explosives" are their big offensive plays — runs of 10 yards or longer, passes of at least 15 yards. And Les Koenning Jr. is concerned it's been a little too quiet on that particular front this season for A&M.

"We need more of them," the Aggies' offensive coordinator said of the explosive plays.

Today's game at Nebraska might provide the opportunity. That, if nothing else, illustrates just how far the once-mighty Blackshirts have fallen.

In fact, the Cornhuskers' defense no longer carries that nickname because it was announced this week their defensive starters no longer will wear black jerseys in practice. That's what happens when you rank eighth or lower in every major Big 12 defensive statistical category.

The idea that A&M's sputtering offense might get well at Nebraska is as bizarre as the notion that this Big 12 matchup won't be televised. In other words, it might be the case as the Aggies try to keep their share of the four-way tie for first in the South Division.

Franchione has been proud of A&M's run/pass balance in recent years. But this season, his offense has been dramatically unbalanced. The ground game is solid — 246 yards per game, just behind league-leading Oklahoma State's 246.3. But the passing attack has never gotten off the ground.

The Aggies are dead last in the Big 12 and 109th nationally in passing yardage (162.6 yards per game). Quarterback Stephen McGee's 55.4 completion percentage ranks 11th among league starters, as does his efficiency rating.

"We're a little behind statistically from where we would like to be," Franchione said. "I don't think it's any one issue — I wish it was. I think it's just an accumulation of things."

One of those things is the lack of explosives. They were glaringly missing in last week's 35-7 loss at Texas Tech when A&M managed only one play of at least 20 yards — a 20-yard run by Mike Goodson. That equalled a season low first set against Fresno State.

"That was really disturbing to us," Koenning said.

Last season, the Aggies averaged 4.1 plays per game of at least 20 yards. The average this season is 3.7. Of their 26 plays of at least 20 yards this year, nine came in a 54-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe.

Koenning said the lack of explosives is also a reason why A&M's ball-control offense is having difficulty sustaining and capitalizing on the long, time-consuming drives that were its trademark in 2006.

"The big difference is the explosives," Koenning said. "We haven't had the number we had last year, and those were a big part of us being able to move the ball."

Even the strength of the offense — the running game — is problematic. Despite the presence of the speedy Goodson and 270-pound bulldozer Jorvorskie Lane, McGee is A&M's leading rusher, gaining most of his 544 yards on option and zone-read plays.

Those yards have come at a price because McGee takes a fearful beating. But Koenning said he has no problem with McGee carrying so much of the load. The coordinator added that he doesn't believe the pounding he takes impairs his ability to throw the ball.

"The game dictates that," Koenning said of McGee's rushing stats. "There are times (defenses) are going to make Stephen keep the ball."

McGee's backup, redshirt freshman Jerrod Johnson, is being brought along slowly — too slowly for some fans. Franchione essentially is saying the same thing now about Johnson that he said in August — he's not ready.

But on the occasions he plays, Johnson produces, albeit mostly against backups at the end of games.

In four appearances, Johnson has led A&M to scores on six of seven possessions. He has run for two touchdowns and also passed for a pair.

Franchione remains reluctant to give Johnson meaningful playing time, though, even for a change-of-pace series or two.

"Jerrod has made strides, but he's still not as far along as we want him to get yet," Franchione said. "I don't think it would make a big impact right now if we brought him in."

A&M's offense, however, obviously is in need of some big-impact plays. The more explosive, the better.

rriggs@statesman.com; 445-3957

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