December 15, 2010

Sherman, DeRuyter fuel A&M surge

Critics of Mike Sherman have liked to say that he doesn't have the fire to reach college players, that he's more comfortable dealing with professionals.

On the Monday following the Aggies' 30-9 loss to Missouri, Sherman put that assumption to rest: literally.

As the team assembled on the practice field, Sherman walked out with the gameplan and game tape from the debacle the previous Saturday - and set it on fire. In the process, he set a fire under his team that appears to still be burning today.

"It was a reminder that we could it put all behind us and turn this all around," receiver Jeff Fuller said.

And they did just that, under a most unexpected set of circumstances. Jerrod Johnson, A&M's all-time scoring, passing and virtually everything at quarterback record holder - not to mention the Big 12 pre-season player of the year - played himself into a backup job. Christine Michael, who had started the season regarded as one of the conference's best running backs (and had done nothing to invalidate that opinion) was gone for the year.

In stepped Ryan Tannehill and Cyrus Gray and the Aggies never skipped a beat. In fact, they got better.

The Aggies 6-0 outburst to close the 2010 season also coincided with the arrival of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter on the sidelines as opposed to the coaching booth. The Aggie defense responded to his presence as well, putting the clamps down on the offenses of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas coming down the stretch.

The Aggies faced some rough moments during this magic stretch, including a horrific first half against Baylor, a furious rally from the Sooners and the Longhorns giving their most spirited performance of the year in an attempt to become bowl eligible. The same man who set fire to the game film after Missouri helped keep his team calm and consistent.

"Burning the tape and the playbooks was doing something to tell them it's OK," Sherman said when asked about the Bonfire of the Tapes. "We've got to move forward. This will pass. You got to let it go. And no matter how many times you're reminded of it by others, the only people who can fix it are on this field."

The message that the game was in the hands of the Aggies resonated, as they realized as the season progressed that, hey, they can win. Tannehill proved to be an effective game manager; Gray was incredible down the stretch running behind an offensive line jelling and improving each week. On defense, the dominance of Von Miller and the fearlessness of Michael Hodges helped create an attacking defense that operated just the way DeRuyter wanted it to. And, if they had any questions about the aggressive, excited style of football they were supposed to play, all they had to do is look over at DeRuyter and Nick Toth on the sideline to get a reminder.

The Aggies have come a long way in less than two months and a lot of people deserve credit for that success. But two men can take pride in knowing they played a critical role: one with a firey personality and one cool customer who knew exactly when an application of lighter fluid was needed.

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