Aggies put the past in rearview mirror

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman knew his program was at a crossroads. In front of a restless home crowd at Kyle Field, the Aggies were blistered by Missouri to drop to 3-3.

A team that had nearly lost at home to Florida International a few weeks earlier didn't have any momentum. They were 0-2 in the Big 12 and still had a difficult final half of the season in front of them.

That Monday afternoon, Sherman decided it was time for wholesale changes. It started with a fire.

Sherman brought the game films, scouting reports and playbooks from the Missouri game and stuffed them in a large garbage can. Then he lit the entire pile on fire as the team watched it all burn up.

"I remember telling them, 'Listen, we have to get this behind us. It's done. It's up in smoke,' " Sherman said.

The symbolic act was about purging the first part of the season and restarting 2010. That meant making some tough choices. Sherman met with the coaching staff Sunday and started altering the look of the team. But the staff maintained that they felt the team was close to figuring things out. And the choices they made, along with a renewed focus from the players, turned A&M's season around. It led to a 6-0 finish in 2010 and a berth in Friday's 75th edition of the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.

"We talked that Sunday as a staff that we would win the next six," defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. "We had no doubt. We knew we were so close that we could win out. Our kids didn't panic, and they stepped up to it."

Sherman made the decision to give Ryan Tannehill a chance at quarterback. Jerrod Johnson had a rough first six games, including a stretch of back-to-back four-interception performances, and Sherman felt like Tannehill deserved an opportunity.

"It was a time to check your hole card," Aggie offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "We knew we had a good football team, but things were not jelling. We were missing something. Our quarterback was an outstanding person and leader but struggled to get the ball to our playmakers, and we have outstanding playmakers. So we decided to see what Tannehill could do. We needed to find out if Tannehill could play because something had to change."

So Sherman told Johnson he would start against Kansas, but that Tannehill was likely to get some playing time. Johnson played well, helping get the Aggies out to a 17-0 lead. Tannehill then came in and also played well as A&M won, 45-10.

"I just decided that we would give Tannehill the start [the next week against Texas Tech] and he took off with it and we've stayed that way since," Sherman said.

Tannehill said he was called into the office the Monday after the Kansas game and told he would start. He said "tons of emotion and excitement" came over him.

"This is the opportunity I've been waiting for," Tannehill said. "It's on my shoulders to seize it. I just had to take advantage of it. I just tried to prepare to the best of my ability and get ready for the game."

His teammates saw a confident player working hard. And he improved as he took more snaps in practice and became better acclimated to running the offense.

Tannehill has a 65.3 completion percentage and 1,434 passing yards with three interceptions and 11 touchdowns in parts of 12 games played this season, including as a starter in the final five games of the 2010 season.

"His reactions and his decision-making has gotten better and better," Rossley said. "You can do it in practice at one speed, but game speed is a little bit faster. It's making great decisions and when you make a decision, being able to make good throws and give us big plays. He's made the decision sometimes to throw the ball away and not have a bad play."

Tannehill's play has certainly revitalized the offense. But A&M's turnaround was more than a signal-caller change. The offense became more run-oriented around the time Tannehill was inserted. The Aggies averaged 151.5 yards rushing per game in the first six games, but in the final six rushed for 180.2 yards per game. Much of that was due to the emergence of Cyrus Gray. The junior from DeSoto, Texas, has rushed for 1,033 yards and has six straight 100-yard rushing games, including a 223-yard effort against Texas.

"Our running game is really the heart of our offense," Gray said. "We can pound the ball and we can get outside where our guys can catch the ball and run."

Gray found some open holes thanks to an offensive line that grew up in 2010. During the Missouri game, an injury to starter Evan Eike forced freshman Jake Matthews (son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews) into the right tackle spot. That put two true freshmen at the tackle positions and a couple of sophomores at the guard spots. But the line quickly jelled and has become a steady force protecting Tannehill and creating space for Gray.

Of course, the A&M defense has done its part. That unit gave up 30 points to Missouri and DeRuyter met with his defense Monday morning after the game.

"I personally made a bunch of mistakes in that game," DeRuyter said. "We didn't have a good enough game plan and didn't adjust well enough during the game. We met and told the team what needed to be done. We talked our players through it. The thing that was great is that there was no pointing of fingers. There was no blaming someone else. We didn't play well, but we knew how to correct it. They believed in each other and in the coaches."

Von Miller, who plays the "jack" position (hybrid defensive end and linebacker spot), started looking like his old self again. He had healed from his ankle injury and began disrupting backfields. Couple that with the entire defense better understanding DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme and the Aggie defense began causing problems for opposing offenses.

Add it all up and Texas A&M beat Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor, Nebraska and Texas to end the season at 9-3 and punch their ticket to Dallas. Now they'd like to finish it off with a win over a top SEC team. They know it won't be easy.

"It would help us tremendously with our confidence next year and going into next season to get that 'W,' " wide receiver Ryan Swope said. "This team, I can tell you right now, is a hungry team and we want to win for the seniors, we want to do it for those guys. It's going to mean a lot to us if we can do it and it can carry over to next season."

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.