- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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After another week spent in the national discussion, Texas A&M gets to turn its focus back to the football field tonight when the Aggies host FCS squad Sam Houston State at 6 p.m. at Kyle Field.
The game serves as a rematch from a November clash last season, one that Texas A&M claimed 47-28.
The Aggies are heavy favorites, as expected, but coach Kevin Sumlin has hammered home two main points to his team in preparing for the Bearkats. One traces back to last season's battle.
Sam Houston State outscored the Aggies 28-6 once A&M's backups entered the game. Sumlin noted Tuesday that many of those that were on the field at that time have significant roles on this season's squad.
Also, seven FCS teams earned upsets over FBS teams in the opening week of the season. One of those teams was Sam Houston State's opponent in the FCS national championship game last year, North Dakota State, which went into Manhattan, Kan., last week and upset defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.
"Anybody who watched North Dakota State last week win their game last week, that'll get your attention in a hurry," Sumlin said. "They go to Kansas State and win. Then you turn on last year's Sam Houston-North Dakota State game and it's a heck of a ballgame. Our players get that."
Texas A&M comes into the game shorthanded in a few areas. Four players are serving the second of a two-game suspension for a violation of athletic department rules, three of whom are defensive starters: cornerback De'Vante Harris, outside linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and reserve receiver Edward Pope. The Aggies will also begin the game without the services of starting cornerback Deshazor Everett (targeting) and true freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall (throwing a punch). Both were ejected in the second half for their respective infractions and thus, by rule, must sit out the first half of tonight's game.
The Aggies do regain the services of starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and safety Floyd Raven, both of whom served one-game suspensions as the result of offseason arrests. Tonight will also mark the first start of the season for quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was suspended the first half of the season-opening 52-31 win over Rice because of "inadvertent violations" discovered during an NCAA investigation that concluded last week.
So now that all the personnel issues are hashed out, here are some keys to look out for from Texas A&M:
Improvement on defense?: The Aggies yielded a whopping 509 offensive yards, including 306 on the ground, to Rice. Many of the struggles can be attributed to the fact that six key defensive players sat part or all of the game because of suspensions, and a total of 11 defensive true freshmen saw the field at some point. Against a veteran offense like Rice that's well-coached, that's a bad combination. But the Aggies need to show some improvement from game one to game two because some of those young players will have to play significant minutes later this season, starting next week in the Aggies' showdown against Alabama.
Assignment football: Sam Houston State an option attack which will require the Aggies to stay disciplined on defense and play assignment football. That should be useful experience for Texas A&M's young defensive players. The Bearkats return the two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year in running back Tim Flanders and starting quarterback Brian Bell, who has engineered 31 victories in the last three seasons. A transfer from Texas A&M, Chance Nelson, is also back after a freshman season that saw him record 671 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. That experience will help the Bearkats, who are have appeared in the FCS national championship game the last two seasons.
Keep the offense rolling: When Manziel took hold of the offense, he engineered four scoring drives and threw three touchdown passes, looking much like his 2012 self. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel was solid in his starting debut, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points. What is often overlooked is the Aggies' running game, which was productive in Week 1. Starter Ben Malena compiled 82 rushing yards and a touchdown while Tra Carson added 76 rushing yards and two scores. Sophomore transfer Brandon Williams is expected to play after healing up from offseason foot surgery, adding a dynamic option to the Aggies' backfield.
When it's all said and done, the Aggies are hoping to come away with a solid win to put themselves at 2-0 prior to their much-anticipated showdown with defending BCS champion Alabama.