Houston • Texas A&M has had a difficult month.
The Aggies were already dealing with the firing of coach Mike Sherman when they learned last week that senior offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio had been killed in a car accident.
Preparing for Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl against Northwestern has been a welcome distraction, and the Aggies are determined to win as a tribute to both their fired coach and fallen teammate.
"It's been tough, but we've got a lot of character in there," senior kicker Randy Bullock said. "It's a good group of guys, we're really working toward winning this game for Joey V, and also for coach Sherman. We've got a lot riding on this game. We know that, and that's definitely motivation for all of us."
Texas A&M will be led in the bowl game by interim coach Tim DeRuyter in his last game at Texas A&M before leaving to become Fresno State's coach. The Aggies hired former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin earlier this month, but he wasn't involved in bowl preparations.
DeRuyter said his brief tenure as coach has been tough, but he was ready to return the focus to football.
"It's finally game week," he said. "It's great to finally be here, there have been so many distractions. Our guys have done a really good job of preparing, I think, and putting those distractions aside."
The Aggies will wear helmet decals honoring Villavisencio, who died Dec. 22. The black and white decal, which says 'Joey V.,' has his No. 67 and the Texas A&M logo.
"We all hurt for Joey V.'s family, for all the things he stood for," DeRuyter said. "But we told our team that we absolutely have to go out and honor him by doing what he would do, and going out and practicing hard, competing hard and getting it done."
The Aggies, who haven't won a bowl game since 2001, will be facing a team that has a much longer bowl win drought. Northwestern's only bowl victory came in the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats have lost eight bowl games since then; two of the past three losses have come in overtime, and they lost by a touchdown to Texas Tech in last year's TicketCity bowl.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald attached a plush monkey to a backpack for players to take turns carrying around on their backs. The monkey is wearing a jersey with the No. 63 the number of seasons since that Rose Bowl win on Jan. 1, 1949.
"It's just that last negative hurdle for our program to get over," Fitzgerald said. "We've been close now the last three opportunities, but we haven't done it yet."
The players have gotten a kick out of their new pet, but they know the message behind it is serious.
"I think coach Fitz just wanted to bring it to light a little bit and kind of make fun of it, but at the same time make us realize it's real and at the same time get a higher awareness of it," quarterback Dan Persa said. "It's not OK for that monkey to stay on our backs, we've got to get rid of it and we've got to move on from that."
The Wildcats are not only preparing for the Aggies, but also dealing with what they expect to be a rowdy A&M crowd. College Station is only about 100 miles from Reliant Stadium, making Saturday's matchup basically a home game for the Aggies.
"I'm sure they'll have a lot of fans down here," Persa said. "It will play a good factor in the game, but we feel comfortable on the road and we have played well on the road in past years. So we're looking forward to the challenge."
Persa leads a Northwestern team that won four of its past five games to qualify for a bowl game. The Wildcats are averaging almost 433 yards a game, fueled by Persa's passing attack that is averaging 257 yards.
The Aggies have one of the top offenses in the country and are piling up 497 yards a game. Senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown for 3,415 yards this season, but is trying to bounce back after tying a season high with three interceptions in A&M's last game.
Texas A&M is expecting to get perhaps its top offensive weapon back in senior running back Cyrus Gray. Gray had 1,045 yards rushing this season for his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season, but missed A&M's regular-season finale against Texas with a stress fracture in his left shoulder.
Gray has been practicing and said he feels good, but there is a chance he could miss the game if he has any setbacks. He said watching his team lose to Texas and not being able to contribute was the most difficult moment of his football career. He can't wait to get back on the field.
"We have this game, so I can bounce back and hopefully get a chance to make things right," he said.
Meineke Car Care Bowl preview
P Northwestern (6-6) vs. Texas A&M (6-6), 10 a.m.
TV • ESPN
Line • Texas A&M by 10
Series record • First meeting.
What's at stake • A winning record. The Aggies haven't won a bowl game since 2001 and would like to come out on top to honor former coach Mike Sherman, who was fired earlier this month. It's been far longer since the Wildcats have won a bowl game, with their only victory coming in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Key matchup • Texas A&M's running game vs. Northwestern's run defense. The Aggies are averaging more than 209 yards rushing a game, and the Wildcats are yielding more than 185 a contest. Texas A&M's attack should get a boost with the expected return of Cyrus Gray, who missed the Aggies' last game with a stress fracture in his left shoulder.
Players to watch • Northwestern: QB Dan Persa. The senior threw for 2,163 yards with 17 touchdowns and just seven interceptions despite missing the first three games of the season. He threw for more than 300 yards in two games this season, including a season-high 372 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Rice in November. Texas A&M: RB Cyrus Gray. The senior should return for his last college game after sitting out Texas A&M's loss to Texas to end the regular season. Gray ran for 1,045 yards this season for his second straight year with at least 1,000 yards rushing. He averaged 5.3 yards a carry, scored 12 rushing touchdowns and had three touchdown receptions.
Facts & figures • Texas A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will serve as interim coach for the game despite being hired as Fresno State's coach earlier this month. … New Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was not involved with bowl preparations because he didn't want to distract the team. … Northwestern has lost eight bowl games since its win in 1949. … The Wildcats won four of their past five games to qualify for a bowl. … A&M's last bowl win came in Houston in this bowl when it was called the Galleryfurniture.com bowl and played in the Astrodome, which is adjacent to Reliant Stadium where Saturday's game will be played. … Northwestern has five players from the Houston area.