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August 8, 2007

A&M-Texas rivalry has one familiar theme

Texas A&M should beat Texas this year.

That statement isn't based on hyperbole, wishful thinking or looking through the maroon-colored glasses that Aggies are so often accused of wearing when discussing their football team. It's not even about the fact that the contest will be played at Kyle Field, although the racous atmosphere should be an advantage for the Aggies.

Instead, it's about the recent history of the series and the one aspect of the rivalry that almost always holds up no matter what the circumstances.

The team that has the better running game will win.

While this adage holds true most of the time in football, it's even more applicable to this series. It's a rivalry game with great intensity on both sides which favors defenses. It's played in November where the weather can make it difficult to move the ball in the air with any consistency.

It's an adage that held true through the past 30 years in this series, which has a tendency to run in cycles and favors the team with the superior ground attack.

Texas controlled the series up until the mid-1970s when A&M matured as an institution and began to reap the recruiting benefits.

The Aggies scored their first victory in the series in eight years in a Thanksgiving Day showdown in 1975 by doing to the Longhorns what the Longhorns had done to them over the years - run the ball right down Texas' throat with the Wishbone featuring running backs Bubba Bean and Skip Walker as well as a wondrous freshman named George Woodard.

They won again in 1976 in Austin (the first A&M victory there in two decades) with Woodard and a pair of future NFL backs named Curtis Dickey and Adger Armstrong leading the way.

It didn't hurt that A&M dominated up front as well with all conference types like Mark Dennard and Frank Myers.

But in 1977, the tide began to swing back toward the Longhorns. Earl Campbell had been a Wishbone fullback, but was unleashed as a I formation tailback he clinched the Heisman Trophy and a Southwest Conference title with a 257-yard game at Kyle Field.

The victory was a sign of things to come for Texas as they won four of the next six games in the series. Other than Rick McIvor's five touchdown pass explosion on a windy day in 1983, there wasn't a lot of finesse on the winning side. It was the days before the spread and West Coast offenses had taken hold and 7-on-7 summer leagues were 10 to 20 years into the future.

However, Jackie Sherrill's arrival in College Station in 1982 began to change things.

Sherrill did bring the SWC it's most modern offensive look in decades with quarterback Kevin Murray, winning back to back titles in 1985 and 1986. However, everyone forgets that A&M's win in 1984 in Austin featured a running attack with Anthony Toney and Thomas Sanders that created A&M's largest margin of victory in the series up to that time.

The 1984 game was a harbinger of things to come as the Aggies won 10 of the next 11 contests. There was Roger Vick's 41 carry performance in 1986, Keith Woodside's 90-yard burst in 1987 and Rodney Thomas' long run late in the 1993 game that sealed A&M's sixth conference title in nine years. There were offensive linemen such as Richmond Webb and Matt Wilson who shoved Longhorn defenders around when nothing else would work.

However, in 1995 Texas came into Kyle Field and won the last SWC title with a 16-6 victory over the Aggies. Neither team could get a passing game going and the difference was a pair of newcomers named Shon Mitchell and Ricky Williams who gained over 100 yards rushing apiece.

The game was the harbinger of the most recent cycle in the series that featured nine Texas wins in 11 games. Other than an occasional outburst by Texas wide receiver Roy Williams, it was a parade of backs - Williams, Hodges Mitchell, Cedric Benson and Vince Young - behind a slew of offensive linemen like Cedrick Dockery and Justin Blaylock - that enabled Texas to control games even when A&M played well and played hard. In fact, A&M's only two wins in this cycle of the series occurred in 1997 and 1999 when they outrushed the Horns.

But in 2005, things began to swing the other way once more, although it wasn't noticeable on the national scene. Although a 5-6 A&M team seemingly represented just another win on the way to Texas' national title, the Aggies' sophomore-laden line did terrible things to Texas' front seven. They outgained the Horns 277 to 174 with both Stephen McGee and Jorvorskie Lane going for over 100 yards each.

Penalties and special teams play doomed the Aggies that day, but old fashioned football had served notice of things to come.

By the time the 2006 game rolled around, the Aggies had fallen out of contention for the Big 12 title while Texas could clinch a berth in the conference championship game. Although Texas still had people like Blaylock up front, they no longer had the dominant running back that was able to take control of a game.

Nonetheless, the Aggies won as the winning team in this rivalry always won - on the ground.

The dominant back in the game was A&M freshman Michael Goodson who had a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The dominant offensive line belonged to the Aggies as Texas could not even convert a fourth and one on its first drive.

As one looks to November 2007, what jumps out is the fact that A&M returns four offensive linemen including potential NFL draftees Cody Wallace and Yemi Babalola. Texas lost Blaylock and two others which will affect the continuity that is so important in making adjustments in blocking the running game. A&M returns Goodson, Lane and McGee. In contrast, Texas no longer has a first round-caliber NFL draft pick waiting in the wings.

And while A&M rushed for an average of over 200 yards per game last year, Texas could not even muster that combined in its last two games. The Horns missed having a running threat from the quarterback position on the zone read and they probably won't have one again this year. Against Iowa, they threw 40 passes with a quarterback who was less than 100-percent healthy because they couldn't run the ball.

Overall, it's easy to see that in order to win in this series, you must run the ball well. History dictates that.

And much to the Longhorns' chagrin, history will repeat itself once more on the day after Thanksgiving.


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