COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M will return to the Cotton Bowl in style because it exhibited some style in its return game.
Stymied much of the night on offense, the 10th-ranked Aggies found the end zone via an interception return and punt return to break open an otherwise close game and defeat Texas, 31-14, last night in front of 76,532 at Kyle Field and a national ESPN television audience.
An 80-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter and expand a 10-7 lead may have been a momentum-turner, but Marcus Buckley set the tone when he returned his first career interception 19 yards for a touchdown on A&M's first defensive play.
Cornerback Kevin Smith provided the knockout on a 73-yard punt return with 5:59 remaining, increasing the Aggies' lead to 24-7 and forcing Texas' stuck-in-neutral offense (165 yards, 2.8 per snap) to play catch-up while bucking a 20-mph headwind in the fourth quarter.
"Basically, those two plays were the game," Smith said, scanning a stat sheet that showed A&M with a big edge in yards (210-65) and a 2-2 split in turnovers. "We don't get them, the score is 17-14, and we've got a real dogfight."
Instead, the 17-point victory elevated A&M to the status of the most dominant team in Southwest Conference history. At least the numbers bear that out.
The victory made A&M (10-1, 8-0) one of three teams in the SWC's 77-year history to finish conference play with a three-game margin of victory in the final standings. Baylor (1980) and Texas (1972) are the others.
But the Aggies' average margin of victory in SWC play -- 24.3 points per game -- exceeds that of either predecessor. No conference team came within nine points of defeating the Aggies. Both the 1980 Bears and 1972 Longhorns had two escapes by eight points or less.
"This," Smith said, "should earn us a little respect."
Quarterback Bucky Richardson, limited to only 96 yards total offense, said, "We did something that's only been done three times in the history of the SWC. Anytime you achieve something like that, it's special. This has been a special year."
For Texas (5-6, 4-4), it has been a dreadful year. The Longhorns were 10-2 and SWC champions a year ago. The turnaround in record represents the biggest one-year drop in school history.
"I wish everyone besides the football team and coaches would leave us alone and let us take care of business," Texas defensive tackle James Patton said. "We felt like our fans were against us this year. In an indirect way, that affects how you play."
Texas' defense showed no ill effects early, limiting A&M to 55 yards offense in the first half. Yet the Longhorns trailed, 10-7, at intermission.
That is because Texas' much-maligned offense, which never visited the end zone during the first quarter of any game this season, did produce a touchdown in the first 15 minutes -- for A&M. On Texas' first snap, Buckley stepped in front of a Peter Gardere screen pass and returned it 19 yards for a 7-0 lead the Aggies would never relinquish.
"I was trying to rush the passer. I got off my block, looked up, and the ball about hit me in my face," said Buckley, who also had two sacks and a fumble recovery. "It was all reaction."
A&M increased its advantage to 10-0 in the second quarter and missed a chance to put away the game when Richardson overthrew a wide-open Tony Harrison two minutes before the half. It proved to be a 14-point swing because Boone Powell's interception on the next play set up Texas at the A&M 20.
Six plays later, Rodrick Walker's 2-yard dive trimmed the halftime deficit to 10-7 and marked Texas' third touchdown in its last 22 drives inside its opponents' 20.