Alabama takes down Texas A&M in high-scoring SEC affair
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel led the Aggies to a 14-0 first-quarter lead on Saturday, thus channeling memories of A&M's upset in Tuscaloosa last November, Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio stood on the sideline and prayed.
"I kept saying, 'My God is better than this noise, my God is better than this noise,'" Kouandjio said. "It gave me confidence."
As it turned out, the football gods had an entirely different plan in mind than last year's 29-24 Aggies' win. Not only would the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide emerge victorious, but they did so in a back-and-forth offensive shootout unlike any Nick Saban-coached Alabama team has ever experienced.
Remember the "Game of the Century" at Bryant-Denny Stadium that LSU won 9-6? That was so 2011. In 2013, the SEC has become a league defined less by its touted defenses and more by its elite quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, many of whom sparkled in the Tide's 49-42 victory on Saturday. Alabama's AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon outdueled A&M's Manziel and Mike Evans, and 'Bama won a game in which its normally dominant defense surrendered a school-record 628 yards.
"We knew we were going to have to play this kind of game to have a chance to win," said Saban. "I didn't think they were going to score 42 points -- but I kind of thought they'd score some points."
As Alabama begins its quest for a historic three-peat, the Crimson Tide have thus far played two completely different games -- and shown completely different imperfections in both of them. The rebuilt offensive line struggled mightily in 'Bama's season-opening 35-10 victory over Virginia Tech on Aug. 31, paving the way for just 206 total yards. But on Saturday against an overmatched Texas A&M defensive front, the Tide rolled to 568 total yards. The defense, however, was hardly a thing of beauty.
Those looking to poke holes in the idea that Saban's 2013 team is invincible should wait to render judgments on either side of the ball.
One of the most frequently heard talking points in the seemingly endless buildup to Alabama's "revenge" game was that, given an entire offseason, surely Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart would have a master plan for slowing down Johnny Football. But it may just be that no such thing exists. Manziel racked up 562 yards of total offense -- the second-highest total of his career -- and threw five touchdown passes. Time and again, he scrambled, extended plays and found receivers open downfield. He was even more dazzling than he was in last year's Heisman-clinching win in Tuscaloosa.
But this year, the Tide didn't flinch. McCarron shook off the early 14-0 deficit to lead Alabama to five unanswered touchdowns. The Crimson Tide's running game, led by Yeldon (25 carries, 149 yards, one touchdown), was dominant. If not for a Yeldon fumble at the goal line with 8:42 left and 'Bama leading 42-28, the Tide might have won this one decisively. Instead, the turnover opened the door for Manziel to complete a stunning 95-yard touchdown pass to Evans, getting the Aggies back into a game that Alabama had been controlling.
Once again, though, the Crimson Tide responded. Alabama's next possession turned into a Yeldon-heavy touchdown drive that ate up more than five and a half minutes, rendering A&M's last-second touchdown inconsequential and leaving the famously grumpy Saban mostly pleased.
"We improved as a team," said Saban. "Obviously we haven't put it all together yet. When you lose 30 percent of your team, you have to develop chemistry, and I think that is starting to happen. This was a great win for our players today."
It just felt completely different than any Crimson Tide win in recent memory.
Give Alabama's offense credit. After two weeks of skepticism stemming from its sloppy performance against the Hokies, the Tide did to the sixth-ranked Aggies what it normally does to much lesser foes -- dominated the line of scrimmage. McCarron (20-of-29, 334 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions) had ample time to find the right receiver almost every time he dropped back to throw. Ten different Alabama players caught passes. Meanwhile, running backs Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Jalston Fowler combined to average 6.3 yards per carry.
"We have all the potential, we can do whatever we want," said Kouandjio. "We have playmakers, we have the running game, the passing game. We kind of gave you guys a taste of our identity."
The Tide defense, conversely, did not remotely resemble its regular form. Some of that can be chalked up to the magic of Manziel. Some of it, however, was the result of bona fide breakdowns.
Saban may be a four-time national championship head coach who makes $5.3 million a year, but he is also, at heart, still a defensive backs coach. And Saturday's game was an absolute nightmare for the Alabama secondary. Evans, A&M's 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore receiver, burned Tide cornerbacks John Fulton and Cyrus Jones for a staggering 279 yards on seven catches. Evans had four receptions of 32 yards or more in the first quarter alone.
"When you don't fundamentally do things the way you're supposed to, you usually pay the price," said Saban. "We were trying to rush five guys and keep Manziel in the pocket and No. 13 [Evans] had his way with us." Later, Saban mentioned that, "We may have some other players at certain positions that might have to step up and play." Hint, hint.
Jones, to his great credit, did make one of the key plays of the game. It came with the score tied 14-14 in the second quarter and the Aggies down on the Tide's four-yard-line. On second-and-goal, Manziel slightly overthrew a fade pass to freshman wideout Ja'Quay Williams. Jones picked it off for a touchback. Saban would later call the interception the turning point of the game. "I will take that one with me," said Manziel. "It was just a miscommunication."
Four plays later, McCarron connected with receiver Kenny Bell for a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown, the first of five straight for the Tide, including a tipped Manziel pass that safety Vinnie Sunseri returned 73 yards to the end zone to put Alabama ahead 35-14.
Those two mistakes were two too many with the way that the Crimson Tide's offense was manhandling Texas A&M's defense.
"We had three plays really," said Kouandjio. "T.J. left, T.J. right, T.J. 'Smash.' Just so everybody would understand we're a good offensive line."
In fairness, 'Bama was feasting on a young A&M defensive front that is still trying to jell after enduring several early-season suspensions. Still, chances are that Alabama's offense will be much more like the one fans saw on Saturday than the one they saw against Virginia Tech going forward.
And chances are that the Crimson Tide won't face another offense of the Aggies' caliber until at least the SEC Championship Game.
So while conceding that there's ample room for improvement (as every player and coach does this time of year), no one from Alabama was apologizing for the uncharacteristic nature of an otherwise sweet triumph.
"Nobody on our defense is pleased," said linebacker C.J. Mosley. "But at the end of the day it was an SEC game, in their house, so it was a big win."
There will likely be many more big victories to come for the 2013 Tide, but they probably won't be as entertaining as this one.