A season that fell far short of the high hopes and big dreams in August ends in near-by Houston. Texas A&M will play its last game as a member of the Big 12 Conference when it faces Northwestern in Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl.
There are plenty of questions regarding the Aggies' motivation and incentive. Playing in a BCS bowl was the minimum requirement for a team that was ranked in the top 10 before the first toe-meets-leather moment.
A 6-6 season that cost Mike Sherman his job plus the move to the Southeastern Conference has put the A&M program in a state of flux. Even interim coach/defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is on the move; he has accepted the job as Fresno State's head coach and will assume those duties after the bowl game.
The Aggies, though, have indicated they have plenty of motivation. Many of them were recruited by Sherman; they liked and respected him. Also, A&M will face Northwestern (6-6) with heavy hearts. Reserve offensive lineman Joey Villavisencio died in a car wreck a week ago while headed home for Christmas.
"We want to memorialize him in the right way, and the way we do that is through practice and, come Saturday, we're going to do it by how we play," DeRuyter said.
"He brought us here as boys and made us men," said senior running back Cyrus Gray. "We want to get this win for him and Joey V. We have a lot riding on this week."
A victory would mean a winning record and momentum heading into 2012 and the induction into the SEC. The last time A&M won a bowl game, it was also in Houston. The Aggies defeated TCU (ironically, the school recruited to the Big 12 to replace A&M) in the 2001 GalleryFurniture.com Bowl. That was the final game played in the Astrodome; Saturday's game is in Reliant Stadium.
Meineke Car Care
Texas A&M vs. Northwestern
Need to know: 11 a.m. Dec. 31, Reliant Stadium, Houston, ESPN.
Team records: Texas A&M 6-6, Northwestern 6-6.
Scouting Texas A&M
Senior running back Cyrus Gray, who missed the Texas game with a hairline fracture in his shoulder, is listed as a game-time decision. Wide receiver Ryan Swope set a school record with 79 receptions and 11 of those produced touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Jeff Fuller has battled injuries all season. If he's healthy for the bowl game, he could provide the Aggies with another weapon in an offense that seventh in the nation in total offense (497.0 yards per game) and are 11th in scoring with 39.6 points per game. A&M allows just 106 yards rushing per game and leads the nation in sacks with 43. Northwestern, however, has mobile quarterbacks who are threats to scramble.
The Wildcats run a spread offense that averages 176 yards rushing and 256 yards passing per game. Quarterback Dan Persa was injured to start the season but he played in nine games and is 10th nationally in passing efficiency. He leads the nation in passing percentage, completing throws at a 74.2 percent clip. Senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is the top receiving threat and has 11 touchdown catches. Senior tight end Drake Dunsmore has 43 receptions for 509 yards and was honored as the top tight end in the Big Ten Conference. Kain Colter is used as a quarterback, running back and receiver. Northwestern's defense has struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Texas A&M reserve offensive lineman Joey Villavisencio died in a car accident last week driving home for Christmas. The Aggies will wear a decal "67 Joey V" to honor his memory. Northwestern will also wear the decals on its helmets. … Last year, Northwestern lost to Texas Tech, 45-38, in the inaugural Ticket City Bowl. The Wildcats' last bowl victory came in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Two of their last three bowl losses have come in overtime. … Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was A&M's defensive coordinator from 1997-02. … The Aggies lost four of their last five and finished 4-5 in the Big 12. Five of the six losses came by seven or fewer points. … Texas A&M is playing a bowl game in Houston for the third time. The Aggies lost the 1977 Bluebonnet Bowl and won the 2001 GalleryFurniture.com Bowl; that was the school's last victory in a bowl game.