- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) - Christian Kirk and Texas A&M’s punt return unit had been a bit discouraged that they had been unable to make a big play this season.

That feeling changed quickly Saturday night.

Kirk returned two punts for touchdowns and had a scoring catch to help No. 9 Texas A&M rout New Mexico State 52-10 .

Texas A&M (7-1) took a break from Southeastern Conference play to face the Sun Belt team for the first time, a week after suffering its first loss at top-ranked Alabama.

“It was the first one of the season for me and the punt return group and it felt good for everyone,” Kirk said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Kirk returned punts for 70 and 73 yards to become the first player in school history with two punt return scores in a game. He has a school-record four in his career.

“He’s established himself as one of the best returners in the nation,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “He’s a weapon and has been since he’s been here … there’s no question with the ball in his hands he’s got real skill.”

A 12-yard run by Trayveon Williams on A&M’s first drive made it 7-0 before Kirk’s first return TD pushed the lead to 14-0 later in the first. On that return, Kirk grabbed the ball and evaded the first wave of defenders before sidestepping another one, getting a couple of blocks, sprinting away from the rest of the defense and waltzing into the end zone.

“The kid is really punting the ball well and to do that twice in one night there’s just no excuse,” New Mexico State coach Doug Martin said.

Trevor Knight found Kirk on a 3-yard reception in the corner of the end zone in the second quarter to leave Texas A&M up 24-0.

“We beat a team that we were supposed to beat and we made a bunch of big plays that we were supposed to make,” Knight said. “The message after the game still was we can be sharper. We can be better. We still haven’t played our best game yet.”

Texas A&M was up by 28 points early in the third quarter when Kirk added his second return score to make it 38-3. Knight was replaced by backup Jake Hubenak not long after that, and most of A&M’s starters were soon on the bench.

Tyler Rogers threw for 138 yards and a touchdown and ran for 40 yards for New Mexico State (2-6).

THE TAKEAWAY

NEW MEXICO STATE: New Mexico State struggled to deal with the size and speed of Texas A&M and wasn’t able to do much on either side of the ball. The team will savor its open date next week to recover and regroup from this lopsided defeat.

TEXAS A&M: Texas A&M handled business against a lesser opponent and got a much-needed week off from the rigors of the SEC as injuries have started to mount. Sumlin held out star defensive end Myles Garrett, who has been dealing with a leg injury, and a few other players who are battling minor injuries with consecutive conference games ahead in the next two weeks.

Sumlin was impressed with how his defense held up without its best player.

“There were guys out there in roles that may not have been great, but they never gave up the big home run on defense,” he said.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Texas A&M should move up at least a couple of spots after No. 7 Nebraska and eighth-ranked Baylor lost Saturday. Knight was asked how much attention the Aggies pay to how the teams ranked ahead of them fare each week since the Aggies could have a shot at the College Football Playoff if they don’t lose again and other teams fall.

“There is a side of it to where you’re watching who wins and loses,” Knight said. “But if we don’t take care of our business we’re not going to be in the conversation at the end anyway.”

STOPS ON STOPS ON STOPS

New Mexico State linebacker Rodney Butler, who entered the game leading the nation in tackles, added 11 on Saturday night to give him 113 this season. Butler had a season-high 24 tackles against New Mexico on Sept. 10 and has had at least 11 tackles in all but one game this year.

MOVING ON UP

Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds had a 41-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter to give him 24 in his career and tie him with Ryan Swope for second on the school’s all-time receiving touchdown list.

“Just an aggressive guy. He’s extremely effective,” Sumlin said. “He’s really increased his play this year as an overall player. He made a great decision by coming back, because he’s stronger. He’s more physical.”

UP NEXT

NEW MEXICO STATE: The team is off Saturday before returning to Sun Belt play at Arkansas State on Nov. 12.

TEXAS A&M: Texas A&M visits Mississippi State on Saturday in its last road game before wrapping up the regular season with three straight games in College Station.

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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