Ball protection leads to success for Cowboys, Aggies

Saturday, October 16th 2004, 12:20 pm
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ No two college teams have protected the football better this season than Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.

It's earned them both spots in the Top 25 and 2-0 starts in the Big 12. When they meet Saturday, one will cement a spot as a serious contender in the Big 12 South race while the other will take its first step backward.

The Cowboys (5-0) lead the nation with a plus-3 turnover margin and have steadily gained more attention. They've shown their ball-control rushing attack can be successful against increasing competition and their passing game can bite opponents who concentrate too much on stopping junior Vernand Morency.

Morency is tops in the country with 173.8 rushing yards per game and has excelled in holding onto the ball. With 131 carries this season, he has yet to lose a fumble while allowing the Cowboys to keep possession for more than 33 1/2 minutes per game.

``The tough part about playing them is if you don't get points in your opportunities and they hold onto the ball, you get out of rhythm,'' A&M coach Dennis Franchione said.

The main source of the Aggies' rhythm is talented junior Reggie McNeal, the top rushing quarterback in the Big 12 and the third best in the nation with 71.2 yards per game. McNeal has also been proficient in the passing game with 207.4 yards per game and the Aggies (4-1) are the only team in the country that hasn't thrown an interception. Their plus-2.4 turnover margin trails only Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys say the key to stopping A&M is to disrupt McNeal.

``You've got to put pressure on the guy. If you let him just sit back there all day, he's going to pick you apart,'' Oklahoma State linebacker Paul Duren said. ``He's got a strong arm. He can run the ball. He can do a lot of things.

``We've got to put pressure on him and force him to make turnovers.''

Forcing mistakes has been a strong point for Oklahoma State all season _ through a concerted effort at going for the ball and working together.

``As long as the defense all comes out together, plays hard as a team and swarms to the ball, eventually something good will happen,'' cornerback Daniel McLemore said.

More turnovers means more Morency.

``We want our offense to get as much time on the field as they can,'' Duren said.

The Aggies so far have had success against the run, including holding Kansas State's Darren Sproles to 61 yards. Franchione said he hoped the Aggies' earlier games helped prepare them for Morency and the Cowboys' sturdy offensive line.

``This is a better rushing attack and it's a bigger, stronger back that breaks tackles more than Darren,'' Franchione said. ``Darren made you miss and this guy can make you miss but he can run right through you, too.''

The Aggies, in their second year under Franchione, are trying to get back to the lofty position they held in the early years of the Big 12 _ including a conference title in 1998.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, is trying to match its best start in recent history. The Cowboys have won six straight to start the season only twice _ in 1997 when they finished 8-4 and in an undefeated Sugar Bowl season in 1945.

``We just come in as a team with a chip on our shoulder, having something to prove,'' Morency said. ``We let people know that we're a team to be reckoned with. We're not pretenders.''