COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into the season, there were plenty of questions about Texas A&M's defense.
It didn't seem much different from the circumstances a year ago. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder even said, on the first day of preseason training camp, that the challenges were "exactly the same."
By the end of 2012 the results were positive, with the Aggies performing much better on defense than many expected. If they're to do the same in 2013, they still have a long way to go. The Aggies statistically are among the worst defenses in the nation after a 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field.
"We're going to learn a lot of lessons come Monday when we watch this film," Snyder said. "Lots of lessons."
They had better, because on Saturday, once Alabama got its footing, it seemed able to do whatever it pleased. The Crimson Tide finished with 568 offensive yards -- 334 passing and 234 rushing. After forcing a punt on Alabama's first drive of the game, the Aggies allowed four consecutive touchdown drives, all of which covered 75 yards or more. In the second half, the Tide had three drives of 65 yards or longer, two that turned into touchdowns and another where the Aggies forced a turnover near the goal line.
One thing that stuck out to Snyder was how many big plays the Tide hit on. More than half of Alabama's yards (280) came on plays that gained 15 yards or more. Alabama had 11 such plays in the game.
"We knew it was going to be a day of big plays," Snyder said. "And I'm sure when I go back and look at the film, if you count up the number of big plays and subtract that yardage, you have a pretty good day. That's something we're going to have to learn from."
The Aggies generated virtually no pressure against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. He was never sacked and the Aggies only recorded one quarterback hurry as a team, by defensive tackle Kirby Ennis. Pressure was one of the Aggies' strong suits last year behind the efforts of defensive end Damontre Moore, who now plays for the New York Giants.
"You can't let a great quarterback like AJ McCarron not even get hit or pressured at all," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "They ran a lot of play action, which doesn't help the defensive line get any pressure, but we've got to come up with a way to get pressure on the quarterback. He can't sit there all day. He's too good."
Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. detailed the struggles of the secondary, which allowed a 44-yard touchdown pass on a fleaflicker and a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first half to Kenny Bell.
"First and foremost, hat's off to AJ McCarron and their offensive coordinator [Doug Nussmeier]," Hurd said. "They dialed up some great plays. In the back end, I feel like sometimes we had bad eyes. Sometimes we just didn't trust our keys and techniques and they got us on a few big plays. But I'm sure on Monday we'll get back to work and get those things figured out."
Defending the run wasn't much better for the Aggies and that's been a consistent problem through three games. A&M yielded 6.3 yards per rush attempt on Saturday and it marked the third consecutive game that the Aggies have allowed at least 200 rushing yards.
In their first two games, the Aggies were missing starters at defensive end (Gavin Stansbury), linebacker (Steven Jenkins) and cornerback (De'Vante Harris) because of suspensions. All three returned to the lineup against Alabama, but it didn't stem A&M's struggles.
"Give Alabama credit," Snyder said. "They did a nice job; they had some nice wrinkles. It's hard if you haven't been playing and you haven't seen them to kind of adjust to them. But that's no excuse. We have our guys back and we just have to play better, period."
As it stands currently, the Aggies rank 112th nationally in total defense (489 yards allowed per game), 111th in yards allowed per play (6.92), 115th in run defense (260 yards per game) and 81st on allowing third-down conversions (44 percent).
It's worth noting that the Aggies have a lot of youth and inexperience on the field after graduating key players and suffering a key injury (safety Floyd Raven). True freshman linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni made his first start Saturday; junior safety Clay Honeycutt was making only his second career start. There are 11 true freshmen on A&M's defensive two-deep roster. Growing pains are a part of the deal.
But they'll have to grow up quickly. A&M players and coaches spoke on Saturday of their lofty goals still being intact despite one loss. But the defense must improve significantly for them to have a chance at fulfilling those goals.
Snyder believes his unit has that opportunity.
"I told the kids, 'I know what it looks like and we've got a chance to be good,' " Snyder said. "I thought last year as the season went on, we learned [how to minimize big plays]. Our big-play numbers came down and we started playing better defense. So for us today, it was a matter of big plays on our side of the ball and allowed them to get into a groove running the ball once they got the lead."