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21 Texas A&M
The Aggies have a revitalized quarterback, but real redemptiona Big 12 title (or more)looks out of reach
After sharing the quarterbacking duties with Randy McCown over the first seven games of last season, Stewart reminded everyone why he had been more highly touted coming out of high school than even Manning: Trailing Oklahoma State 22-7 in the fourth quarter, Stewart led the Aggies on two touchdown drives, the second capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left in regulation. The two-point conversion sent the game into overtime, and when A&M won 28-25, Stewart felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders.
"Everything just came together in that game," says Stewart, now a senior. "I wasn't thinking about making mistakes. It was a great moment for me and the team, especially after everything we've been through."
Stewart's transfer to A&M after the 1994 season met with resentment from some Aggies fans, who had labeled him a traitor for leaving his home state in the first place. Things got worse in 1996 when Stewart, a first-year starter on an inexperienced team, was blamed for everything from his own erratic play to the inconsistency of the defense.
The Oklahoma State game turned his career around. In the first seven games of '97, Stewart passed for 528 yards; in the last five he had 901. He also threw just four interceptions in '97, two of which came against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game.
"Branndon came in with a lot of fanfare and really took it upon himself to make things happen," says coach R.C. Slocum. "He had to play with a lot of inexperienced players, and it showed. But he took it on the chin. He realizes we don't have to be the Branndon Stewart show. Plus, now he has a pretty good supporting cast."
That cast includes two backs who specialize in the big play: junior Dante Hall, an effective runner in the open field who rushed for 973 yards and amassed 1,434 all-purpose yards last season; and senior Sirr Parker, who had 800 yards rushing and 1,139 total yards. Complementing that pair is senior fullback D'Andre Hardeman, a workhorse blocker with a nose for the end zone (26 career touchdowns, including 17 in 1996).
The renowned Wrecking Crew defense scored more touchdowns (four) than it allowed through the air (three) last season. Senior Dat Nguyen, though undersized for a linebacker (6' 1", 213 pounds), had 130 tackles in '97, bringing his career total to 370. The secondarysafeties Brandon Jennings and Rich Coady, and cornerbacks Jason Webster and Sedrick Curryreturns intact from a unit that held opponents to 150.3 yards passing.
Texas A&M will need to draw on those strengths, with an early schedule that includes Florida State, plus dangerous Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi, and a conference schedule that offers up both Nebraska and Missouri. "We're giving ourselves chances by playing the best," says Slocum. "We've averaged nine wins a year in the '90s, but I'm still waiting for that Cinderella season when everything comes together."
1997 record: 9-4 (6-2, 1st in Big 12
Quarterback Branndon Stewart had a stretch of 131 pass attempts without an interception.... Over his career, kick returner-running back Dante Hall has averaged 9.4 yards per touch.... Inside linebacker Dat Nguyen had a team-leading 20 stops on third down.... Junior punter Shane Lechler was third in the nation, with a 41.5-yard average.
Schedule strength: 19th of 112
Aug. 31 vs. Florida State
Oct. 10 vs. Nebraska
The Aggies are good enough to repeat as champions of the Big 12 South, but they lack the firepower to win a major bowl.
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