Aggies Eager To Honor Victims
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) _ After all the condolences, flags at half-staff, tributes to fallen classmates and a missing man flyover by F-16 fighters, No. 24 Texas A&M still must deal with No. 7 Texas.
With their high-powered offense and a run-stuffing front four, the Longhorns are favored in Friday’s game.
But the Aggies are eager to play for the 11 students and a recent graduate who died and 27 others who were injured when a 40-foot stack of bonfire logs collapsed Nov. 18.
``We talk quite frequently here about the bond that Aggies have for one another, and sometimes it becomes kind of a company line that you don’t put a lot of stock in,″ A&M coach R.C. Slocum said. ``It’s always there, but in times like this you can really see it.″
There has never been a shortage of emotion in this bitter rivalry that started in 1894 and will be played for the 106th time. But this time, instead of the usual razzing that goes on between the Aggies and Longhorns, the two sides have bonded in the face of the tragedy.
The Longhorns canceled their traditional ``hex rally″ intended to bring the Aggies bad luck. Instead, they held a unity rally on the Texas campus and 40 busloads of Aggies made the 105-mile trip to attend.
In return, the Aggies planned to delete digs at the Longhorns from some of their yells at tonight’s yell practice.
One of the Aggies’ yells is ``Beat the Hell Out of TU″ and after singing ``The Aggie War Hymn,″ fans lock arms, sway side to side and sing ``Saw Varsity’s Horns Off,″ referring to Bevo, the Longhorn mascot.
``It is a tragedy that we all share,″ Texas quarterback Major Applewhite said. ``It was a terrible loss for them and us. We all have friends at A&M and are affected by the tragedy. We can play this game for those who were lost just like the Aggies will.
``By playing, both teams can try to take away from the sorrow,″ Applewhite said. ``We will play for those who have been lost and for the deep traditions of the game.″
A&M linebacker Brian Gamble is eager for the game to start.
``We are very appreciative for what Texas did for us, but when that ball goes in the air at kickoff, both sides are going to be playing as hard as they can,″ Gamble said. ``We owe those who died that much.″
Texas coach Mack Brown expects the game to be played in memory of the fallen Aggies.
``Putting the game on the same level of life and death is not even worth talking about,″ Brown said. ``I hope both teams get themselves prepared to play with the understanding that the game’s place in the overall view of the tragedy doesn’t have a place.″
The winner of this game isn’t always the favorite. Last year, the Aggies entered ranked sixth in the nation and the Longhorns were struggling on defense. But Ricky Williams broke the all-time NCAA rushing record and Texas won 26-24 in the closing seconds.
The Longhorns held the Aggies to a minus-7 yards rushing in 1998. This year, the Longhorns defense is strong again, especially with tackles Casey Hampton and Shaun Rogers. Hampton leads the team with 76 tackles and Rogers is second with 65.
Defensive end Aaron Humphrey has 19 sacks in his last 22 games and leads the team with nine sacks this season.
The game could come down to the Aggies’ weakened rushing attack trying to penetrate the massive Longhorns defensive front. But the Texas defense hasn’t been cooperative. Texas ranks seventh nationally in total defense and 12th against the run.
``Our ability to be two-dimensional is going to be the focal point of the game,″ A&M offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe said. ``Those are some marquee players. It’s going to be a challenge for us to run against them.″
The Aggies’ running game has suffered this season with injuries and a determined attempt to boost the passing game. Fullback Tiki Hardeman was injured early in the season and tailback Dante Hall, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, was dismissed from the team.
Applewhite has more weapons than last year when Williams was the main force. Hodges Mitchell has kept the running game going and Kwame Cavil has a school-record 85 catches and is nearing the top with 1,016 receiving yards.
The Aggies at least have boisterous Kyle Field on their side, with more than 86,000 fans expected, making it the largest crowd to see a football game in the state of Texas.