Texas' instate rivalry grabs weekend spotligtht

The lights have been burning very late the last few nights at Texas A&M's football complex.

Preparing to play Texas Tech will do that to an opposing staff. The challenge of shackling coach Mike Leach's passing attack have kept A&M coaches up late at night watching mountains of grainy videotape, searching for any advantage.

"You see these eyes," A&M defensive coordinator Gary Darnell said, pointing at the noticeable bags under his peepers. "You see these black marks. I've watched them all."

Saturday's game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) at Kyle Field will represent the first true test for Darnell's 4-2-5 alignment. Out of football for a year after being fired as Western Michigan's head coach, Darnell jumped back into coaching for challenges like this.

His hiring was meant to pump some life into a struggling A&M defense that finished last nationally in pass defense last season. Their biggest skid might have been in a 56-17 loss in Lubbock last season, where Tech torched them for 627 total yards and 433 yards passing in the embarrassing blowout loss.

Former defensive coordinator Carl Torbush was the fall guy after those struggles. But even after a 4-0 start this season, coach Dennis Franchione's fortunes could similarly turn if the Aggies struggle again in the South Division like they did last season. A&M limped home with a disappointing 5-6 finish last season -- the third season in the last four in which it failed to make a bowl trip.

Franchione said he's not looking at Saturday's game as any more important than any other, even if the recent results in the rivalry might indicate otherwise.

"This is my next game and it's an important game because it's the first game of conference play, it's a Big 12 opponent and it's Texas Tech," Franchione said. "I spend no more time thinking about me in the equation. I spend all my time thinking about our team and players."

Saturday's game will represent a litmus test for the Aggies' new defense. A&M surprisingly ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense, sixth in pass defense, 19th in scoring defense and 23rd in total defense after its first four games.

Players in Darnell's secondary appear to be the most experienced and talented of any of Franchione's teams.

Several A&M defensive backs got what Franchione termed a "trial by fire" last year. Arkeith Brown, Devin Gregg and Danny Gorrer all played as freshmen. Jordan Peterson redshirted as a freshman and Marquis
Carpenter is playing Division I-A football for the first time. All have seen extensive action so far this season.

"Experience has helped them," Franchione said. "That, and the multiplicity of things that Coach Darnell's defense has given them, has helped them gain confidence as we go into this stretch."

Leach mentioned another reason for the improvement that is probably more accurate, considering A&M's start has been crafted against The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army and Louisiana Tech. That quartet ranks 86th (The Citadel in Division I-AA), 118th (Louisiana-Lafayette), 113th (Army) and 42nd (Louisiana Tech) among passing offenses.

"Scheduling's been beneficial," Leach said. "I think that was smart scheduling."

The Tech coach was careful to praise A&M's new staff, their work ethic and their talent.

"I think they're good coaches," Leach said. "They obviously have some good players. They always do. And then, I think they've scheduled wisely to allow them to build on it."

But nothing the Aggies have seen this season has prepared them for Leach's passing game.

"We're going to play two games on Saturday and we know that," Darnell said. "We'll see more passing in three hours than we'll see in two weeks put together. We have to understand that."

Fans from both schools have been eagerly anticipating what has developed into one of the most underrated rivalries in college football.

Sure, you can have Texas-Oklahoma, Notre Dame-USC or Ohio State-Michigan. But for pure venomous ill will between fans of the two schools, the Aggies and Red Raiders can rank with any of them.

"Aggieland is crazy about this one," A&M defensive end Chris Harrington said. "The excitement is getting back to where we need it. I don't know if I felt anything like this last season. They started camping out for tickets on Sunday. You can tell the fans are getting excited about it."

The seeds of this rivalry started long before Leach arrived in Lubbock. But the Red Raiders' offensive guru helped turn up the intensity in the series with the way his offenses have carved up the Aggies over the years.

Tech has taken control of the series with eight victories in the last 11 games. Leach is 4-2 against A&M, and his confidence clearly has been buoyed after averaging 451.5 yards passing against the Aggies in the last four seasons.

Tech has been able to take advantage in the rivalry because of several reasons. The biggest is Leach's unique offensive system, which A&M hasn't come close to cracking.

His teams have hung up 48, 59 and 56 points in victories over the Aggies in three of the last four seasons, sandwiched around A&M's 32-25 home overtime victory in 2004.

"Their consistency and execution really draw my attention quick," Darnell said.

The teams that have been successful against the Red Raiders have combined zone and man defenses with athletes that match Tech's collection of receivers. The only teams in the Big 12 that traditionally have been able to do that are Texas and Oklahoma, who have combined for a 10-2 record against Leach's teams since his arrival in 2000.

A&M's talent in the secondary has dropped off since R.C. Slocum's salad days in the late 1990s. And the rivalry doesn't figure to turn until A&M has the athletes capable of checking Tech's receivers.

TCU was successful earlier this season, notching a 12-3 victory in Week 3. It was Tech's lowest-scoring performance since 2000.

TCU coach Gary Patterson, a former defensive coordinator under Franchione when he coached the Horned Frogs, developed an exquisite game plan two weeks ago. Patterson's plan involved suffocating coverage of Tech's receivers, with a point of making sure tackles if they did make catches.

"Let's just say we watched that tape," said Franchione, who said he has talked about Patterson's game plan against Tech with his former protégé. "Their secondary played very aggressively and physical and covered very well. They gave up some plays, but they played with poise and broke up a lot of balls. Gary did a great job with his scheme."

Bulletin board smack between Tech and A&M fans has been feverish this week. Disparaging merchandise about the other school is selling like hot cakes on both campuses. The intensity is palpable for Saturday's game.

"I'm looking forward to playing these guys," A&M tight end Martellus Bennett said. "We owe a lot of people from last year. I don't think anybody will be more jacked up for this game than me."

Except maybe Gorrer and his teammates in the secondary, still smarting over Tech's recent success in the series.

"The preseason is over for us now," Gorrer told the San Antonio Express-News. "Texas Tech has been in the back of everybody's minds."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.