Aggies have 77 reasons to be ready for OU

It was college football's avalanche of 2003. Only it wasn't Oklahoma dropping 77 on a Division I-AA opponent. It was Oklahoma dropping 77 on Texas A&M, a proud, tradition-steeped program once led by Bear Bryant and known for a defense called the Wrecking Crew.

"They could have scored 150 points if they wanted to," Texas A&M safety Jaxson Appel said this summer. "You don't ever block it out and forget about it like it never happened. We use it as motivation, so when it's 115 degrees outside and we're running, you think about how low you felt when you lost to Oklahoma 77-0."

Texas A&M not only lost the game by the widest margin in school history, the Aggies lost their identity. The OU loss helped contribute to a school-record 465 points allowed last season and led defensive players to drop the Wrecking Crew nickname until they could earn it back.

Second-year coach Dennis Franchione, to emphasize the importance of team, also stripped the names off the backs of jerseys after going 4-8 last season -- A&M's first losing record since 1982. Franchione vowed he wouldn't put the names back on until his players earned them.

The Aggies were starting to do that this season when, after a staggering 41-21 loss at Utah in which the defense gave up 582 yards, they won six straight and were ranked No. 14. With second-ranked Oklahoma its usual dominant self, Saturday's game between the Aggies and Sooners was shaping up as a legitimate grudge match and key showdown in the Big 12.

And then A&M caved in again.

After suffering only one turnover through seven games, the Aggies suffered three as well as a blocked punt in a 35-34 overtime upset loss at Baylor -- a program widely ridiculed as having no business being in the Big 12. The Bears hadn't beaten A&M since 1985. They hadn't beaten a ranked opponent in 22 straight attempts and had a 13-game conference losing streak.

So when Franchione was asked about last year's collapse against OU on Monday and any revenge factor, he wasn't really in the mood.

"We don't care to remember that game," Franchione said. "Right now, we're putting our emphasis on this game."

No matter how devastated the Aggies were in losing to Baylor, Oklahoma has been circled on the schedule since last year's game. And even though Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops took heat for running up the score, all the Sooners' points came through three quarters. Stoops ran the ball into the middle of the line the entire fourth quarter.

"It was an odd situation to be in," Stoops said at the time. "I believe in being decent to people."

The Aggies best chance to bounce back on Saturday may well be the same game plan A&M used in knocking off Oklahoma 30-26 two years ago in College Station: throw deep.

Then-freshman quarterback Reggie McNeal came off the bench to throw for 191 yards and four touchdowns. One of the scoring strikes was a 40-yarder to Terrence Murphy. Thirteen current A&M starters, including McNeal and Murphy, were part of that victory over OU.

"I suppose it gives them some confidence because they've been there and done that," Franchione said. "I wouldn't say Oklahoma's secondary is vulnerable. They're outstanding defensively. They just destroy people's run game and force you to pass. Some of those will be deep, if you can get time."

Oklahoma showed Saturday in winning a 38-35 cliffhanger at Oklahoma State that it can be beaten deep. OSU quarterback Donovan Woods, who hadn't shown much of a pulse in the passing game all season, looked like Peyton Manning in the second half against the Sooners. Woods threw for a career-high 207 yards (194 coming in the second half), including strikes of 46, 32 and 50 yards to his brother, D'Juan Woods. Donovan Woods also hit Prentiss Elliott with a 39-yard TD pass.

"That was our eighth game," Stoops said. "There've been other teams who threw deep on us, and we defended it well. Sometimes people catch you. We've thrown deep on other teams and done it well. Hopefully, we'll change some things up and make it tough on them to throw it."

A&M's defense would also be considered the weak link of the Aggies after giving up 510 yards two weeks ago in a home victory over Colorado and giving up 339 yards to Baylor. A&M is 98th in Division I-A in pass defense.

So maybe it will be a shootout. But the Aggies are determined to make sure it's not one-sided this year. They've waited too long for this game.

Chip Brown covers the Big 12 for The Dallas Morning News.