Christine Michael rushed for 105 yards and A&M's defense showed obvious improvement from last season in the Aggies' 48-7 victory Saturday night over lower-division Stephen F. Austin.
A&M ranked near the bottom nationally in nearly every defensive category last season, a far cry from the glory days of the "Wrecking Crew" units from the 1980s and '90s. Tim DeRuyter replaced the retired Joe Kines as defensive coordinator in the offseason, and the Aggies have switched to a 3-4 alignment.
So far, so good.
A&M's defense held Stephen F. Austin to 266 yards and 13 first downs, swarming to ball carriers and playing with the kind of energy that DeRuyter and Coach Mike Sherman have been preaching at practice.
"We talk about having fanatical effort, and I thought, at times, I saw really great effort," Sherman said. "It was nice to see, but we have a ways to go. We talked about getting 11 guys to the football, and I thought we had that for the most part."
The Aggies held the Lumberjacks to 31 yards rushing.
"We talk to our players about what it takes to have a championship-type defense -- takeaways, play physical, play with fanatical effort," DeRuyter said. "I thought we tackled well and we got some stops. Overall, I think we played OK."
A&M senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who set eight school records in 2009, completed 28 of 40 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson was off-target on some deep throws, but it hardly mattered in this one.
The Aggies finished with 539 yards -- 192 coming on 55 rushes.
"I really wanted to get the running game going," Sherman said. "We probably sacrificed some things just to put the emphasis on the run game."
Jeremy Moses, Stephen F. Austin's all-time leading passer, went 19-of-37 for 171 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Lumberjacks led the FCS in passing yards (343 per game) in 2009.
"I don't see where their weakness is defensively," SFA coach J.C. Harper said. "We're not going to see a better defense this year."
A&M's offense sputtered early, and Sherman turned to the ground game late in the first quarter to get it moving. Michael carried five times for 47 yards on a 10-play drive, finishing it with a 15-yard touchdown run up the middle.
A&M converted its first third down with 10 minutes left in the half, and on the next play, Johnson hit Ryan Swope for a 15-yard gain to the Lumberjacks' 23. The drive stalled, and Randy Bullock kicked a 32-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
On the next play from scrimmage, A&M cornerback Dustin Harris intercepted a Moses pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. It was A&M's first interception return for a score since 2008.
Stephen F. Austin converted a fourth-and-8 from the A&M 37 on its next series, and Moses threaded a 21-yard TD pass to Cordell Roberson with 4:24 left before halftime to pull within 17-7.
Bullock kicked a 27-yard field goal in the last minute to extend the lead to 20-7. The Aggies felt like they should've led by more.
"At one point, we looked up and saw that we had almost 300 yards of offense and only one touchdown," Johnson said. "There are a lot of things we can work on."
The Aggies marched 69 yards in 15 plays on their initial drive of the second half, and Johnson scored on a 1-yard run. SFA freshman Malcolm Mattox fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Aggies recovered and Johnson threw a 7-yard TD pass to Jeff Fuller with 6:52 left in the third quarter.
Later in the quarter, Michael took a shovel pass from Johnson and ran 46 yards to the SFA 4. He scored on the next play for a 41-7 lead.
Johnson threw another short TD pass to Fuller in the fourth quarter. Fuller has 18 career TD receptions, one shy of the school record set by Bob Long between 1966-68.
Both teams used mostly reserve players for the final 10 minutes.
The schools, separated by only 120 miles, were playing for the first time since 1935. The announced crowd of 81,287 was a Kyle Field record for a season opener.
A&M senior Von Miller, who led the nation in sacks last season, sprained his ankle and did not play in the second half. Sherman was hopeful that Miller would recover in time for next week's game against Louisiana Tech.