FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- Kevin Sumlin is still searching for all of the answers to turning around the youthful Texas A&M defense.
The Aggies’ coach, however, had few complaints about how the timely defense played in a 45-33 win at Arkansas on Saturday night.
No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) entered the game against the Razorbacks having already played 11 true freshmen on defense—with the result having been the league’s worst defense.
After allowing 483 yards to Arkansas (3-2, 0-1), the Aggies still rank last in the SEC in total defense—allowing an average of 476.8 yards per game—but they made just enough critical stops to fend off the Razorbacks.
Arkansas never led in the game, but three times in the second half it had the ball with an opportunity to take the lead. Those drives ended in short order, thanks to a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown by Texas A&M’s Deshazor Everett to open the half and a pair of other three-and-outs after stops by the Aggies.
“Can we be better? You bet we can,” Sumlin said. “But there’s a lot that we can build off of going on the road and winning in this league (Saturday) in the fashion that we did.”
Everett’s interception return for a touchdown came at a particularly critical time for the Aggies, who led 24-10 in the first half before the Razorbacks closed the lead to 24-20 at halftime.
Arkansas had the ball, and momentum, to start the second half—particularly with quarterback Brandon Allen playing well in his return from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss last week’s loss at Rutgers.
On third-and-6, however, Allen stared down receiver Keon Hatcher on the right side of the field. Everett wasted little time in jumping in front of the receiver and quieting the Razorback Stadium crowd with his touchdown.
“Coach just told me to wait on the slant route,” Everett said. “I jumped it, and he threw it to me. It was big.”
Senior linebacker Steven Jenkins later added a game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter for Texas A&M, which won in its first trip to Fayetteville since 1990 -- when both schools were members of the Southwest Conference.
While the Aggies’ timely defensive plays helped secure the win, it was a not-so subtle change in the offense at halftime that provided the answer any time Arkansas threatened.
Texas A&M finished with 523 yards of total offense, 316 of which came in the first half. During the half, quarterback Johnny Manziel rarely had so much as a hand from an Arkansas defender touch him.
The Heisman Trophy winner accounted for 253 yards of total offense in the half, 204 passing and another 49 on the ground.
Manziel finished with 320 yards of total offense, but it was the Aggies’ running game that controlled the action throughout the second half.
Led by Trey Williams’ 83 yards rushing on 9 carries, Texas A&M ran the ball 29 times for 150 yards in the second half. They finished with 262 yards rushing on 44 carries, with Tra Carson adding 64 yards and Ben Malena 40 in the balanced effort.
“To be able to adjust and really play a style that is different for us, different than people think is different for us, will do a lot for our confidence going down the road,” Sumlin said.
The Aggies, who are off this week before returning to action at Mississippi on Oct. 12, threw the ball only seven times in the second half. Even so, Manziel finished with 261 yards passing after completing 23 of 30 passes.
On one drive, after Arkansas pulled to within 31-27, Texas A&M ran the ball eight straight times on its following possession.
Williams capped the 68-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown run, showing that while Manziel is a (big) piece of the offense, he’s not the only option.
“I think it shows a different dimension of our offense,” Malena said. “People look at our offense as being so spread out, the Air Raid offense or whatever.
“But we had two or three consecutive drives where we threw the ball maybe one or two times. I think it just shows how good our offensive line is.”