COLLEGE STATION, Texas – No. 9 Texas A&M loves having a break this week.
The Aggies needed some time to rest and regroup before diving back into SEC play.
The week off seems like a luxury after the Aggies played 12 straight games last year after their opener was postponed by weather to what would have been an open date.
"This year is a lot different," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Five games in, we've got some guys limping around. We've got some guys we need to get healthy for the next stretch of games."
This is the first of two open weeks for the Aggies, who also are off on Nov. 16 — a week before a trip to No. 10 LSU.
"I would say it's going to be kind of weird," running back Ben Malena said. "But this is a long season and right now during this bye week we're just trying to refocus and regroup."
The Aggies are off to a 4-1 start with their only loss coming to top-ranked Alabama. They'll return to SEC play next week with a trip to Ole Miss.
Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M's offense are rolling as expected. The unit is fourth in the nation in total offense with 586.4 yards per game. Of course, most of that is thanks to the stellar play of Manziel in his second season as starter.
The 360.6 yards Manziel is piling up per game up rank fifth in the country and he's responsible for 102 points, third in the nation. Though his numbers are very similar to last year's, Sumlin sees some subtle differences in his sophomore quarterback.
"He's protecting the football and not being reckless," Sumlin said. "What you also see is his understanding of the offense and freedom to adjust the play. He's got some parameters, but he's been able to get us into some good plays. Everybody talks about the quarterback calling the perfect play. That's not what it's about for us. His job is to keep us out of horrendous plays. He understands that a lot more this year than in year one."
He's thrown for 1,489 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions and added 314 yards rushing with three more scores.
Manziel has been helped this season by the development of Mike Evans. Evans has emerged as one of the top receivers in the country, averaging 138.2 yards receiving a game. He had 279 yards receiving against Alabama and has five touchdowns this season.
The Aggies also have been encouraged by the improvement of their running game. They relied on it to eat up the clock in the second half of their win over Arkansas.
"We really displayed the diversity of our offense," Malena said. "Many people think we're just this spread out, air raid offense, but I think it showed the depth of our running back corps. I think all four running backs, when they got their opportunity, they did something special when they got the ball."
But the Aggies aren't satisfied with their performance so far. That could be because they have nearly impossible goals.
"The offense is definitely not where we want it to be," offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "Our goal is to score a touchdown on every possession. We haven't done that yet. We convert about 54 percent on third down and about 80 percent in the red zone. We'd like to be 100 percent on both of those."
Unlike the offense, the defense has plenty of room for improvement. The unit was hurt by the suspension of several starters for the first two games. It has been better since their return, but is still allowing a whopping 476.8 yards a game, which ranks 112th.
"I wouldn't say that they're 100 percent comfortable," senior defensive back Toney Hurd said. "But I think that slowly but surely we're working and getting our chemistry back. I just feel like we need to have a little bit more fun and everything will fall into place for us."
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has seen the group gain confidence in the last couple of weeks, but is still looking for more from them.
"We're getting some continuity," he said. "We need to have some consistency. We play well in spurts."
The Aggies won't practice as much as they normally do this week, but several players said they'll use the extra time this week to watch more film to prepare for next week. Hurd thinks the break will afford the defense time to clean up some of its mistakes before the next game.
"It's critical for us to take our game to the next level," he said. "When we come back out we want to put something out for the world to see — this is our defense. We have to put a great statement out playing against Ole Miss. We have two weeks to prepare so we won't have any excuses."