A&M's offensive line inspired by watching Ali's mastery

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Old boxing films must appeal to the toughness of football players and particularly offensive linemen everywhere.

Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman realized his team was a huge underdog heading into its game against Texas Tech. In order to provide a teaching point, Sherman had his team watch Muhammad Ali’s stunning upset knockout over George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight.

"I really challenged those linemen," said Sherman, whose career started as an offensive line coach. "I was on them during practice and really backed them into a corner and they came out swinging."

Suitably inspired, the Aggies’ offensive line played the game of the season by shredding Texas Tech’s No. 24 ranked run defense for 321 rushing yards and six touchdowns to help power an impressive 52-30 victory over the Red Raiders.

It was only a week removed from an atrocious performance at Kansas State, where the Aggies produced minus-13 yards rushing and allowed six sacks in a 62-14 thumping to the Wildcats.

"I told the guys during the week that this game was more about them as a man, than as a football player,” Sherman said after the game. “I'm proud of them, both as men and football players."

The performance was noteworthy to quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who appealed to the line’s sense of honor before the game by saying he had unflagging confidence in them despite their earlier struggles.

“My hat is off to them,” Johnson told the San Antonio Express-News. “I’m more happy for those guys, especially the seniors. They’ve taken a lot of flack every week. Their parents been calling them, media’s been pretty tough on them. I’ve been telling them ‘Look, I got a lot of faith in you guys. We’re all we got. Just go out there and keep fighting, keep battling.’”

Johnson was sacked only once by the Red Raiders, who came into the game ranked eighth nationally with 23 sacks.

The stunning turnaround in the offensive line’s performance was the major reason the Aggies were able to win in Lubbock for the first time since 1993, scoring the most points in the 68-game history of the series with the Red Raiders. .

Sherman made a tactical move in terms of personnel before the game, inserting redshirt sophomore Evan Eike and freshman Patrick Lewis into the starting lineup at guard to go along with senior starters Lee Grimes and Michael Shumard at tackle and Kevin Matthews at center. And they didn’t get away from the run, repeatedly mashing the Red Raiders at the point of attack.

"I'm not a big guy on moving offensive linemen around. I hate it," Sherman said. "It's been out of necessity because we've had to find the right combination."

The moves worked as the Aggies caught fire from the beginning of the game. A&M produced 15 plays of 10 or more yards in the first half to spark the surge. The Aggies had 334 yards in the first half after produced just 301 the previous week against KSU. That sparked a run of 24 straight A&M points that blew the game open.

The line’s confidence was bolstered by Sherman electing to run the ball more.

A&M’s play-calling ideas built on the line's strong work as Cyrus Gray ran for 131 yards and Christine Michael chipped in with 121 yards – both career bests. They became the first pair A&M running backs to both rush for more than 100 yards since Derek Farmer and Courtney Lewis did it in 2003 against Baylor.

“A lot of us were recruited primarily for a running offense,” Shumard said. “I love running the ball. There’s nothing better, or demoralizing than when the running game is working”

And that big effort proved something to doubters everywhere.

“We were just trying to right the ship. We knew we would get things going in the right direction eventually,” Shumard said. “I heard a lot of talk about how we needed a miracle. That they were going to put 100 points on (us). But that's why the game is played.”

What a difference a week makes. The Aggies came into the game after losing their last three games by an average of 27 points per game. But after beating Tech, the 4-3 Aggies now have solid bowl hopes if they can muster two more victories this season starting with Saturday’s game against Iowa State at Kyle Field.

And even with the strong performance at Tech, Sherman expects more improvement in the offensive line as the season continues.

“It wasn’t a perfect performance by any stretch of the imagination, but we protected our quarterback and we were able to mix it up with the run and pass, which makes it a heck of a lot easier to call the game,” Sherman said. “They did a nice job. They’ll continue to get better. They are a work in progress but there are a lot of things we need to fix.”