Despite loss to Alabama, Texas A&M chasing SEC and national goals
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Two whipped defensive coordinators met after a shootout that would have made Bear Bryant -- who coached at both Alabama and Texas A&M -- seethe.
The Crimson Tide's Kirby Smart had just seen Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel best Archie Manning, whose Ole Miss team had torched Alabama 44 years ago (in a losing effort) for 609 yards, the most that 'Bama had ever allowed in a game. Johnny Football had led A&M to 628 yards on Saturday. The Tide had allowed an opponent to break 40 points for the first time in almost six years.
Now imagine how Smart's Texas A&M counterpart Mark Snyder felt. His team lost Saturday's game. After Alabama's 49-42 win, Snyder asked Smart to relay a message of congratulations to 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron. "I said, 'Can you tell AJ he played a really, really good football game?'" Snyder said. "He kind of looked at me and laughed and said, 'So did yours.' It was that kind of day. Two really good football teams going at it, and we came up on the short end."
Manziel set a new record for total offense (562 yards) in an SEC game. He threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for another 98 yards. Aggies wide receiver Mike Evans broke a Texas A&M school record with 279 receiving yards. The Aggies fought back from a 35-14 deficit and attempted a late onside kick that could have given them a chance to tie. That's the good news.
The bad news for Texas A&M is that the Aggies allowed 568 yards on 66 plays. When the Tide needed to throw, their offensive line picked up A&M's blitzes, and McCarron sliced the Aggies apart down the sidelines against man coverage. When Alabama needed to run, the line bulldozed Texas A&M's front seven so running backs T.J. Yeldon or Kenyan Drake or Jalston Fowler could blast through to the second level and beyond. Though A&M made things interesting in the fourth quarter, the Tide dictated the tempo for most of the game with a rushing attack that averaged 6.3 yards a carry.
Given what they showed on Saturday against a veteran defense that has been among the nation's best for the past five seasons, the Aggies should feel confident that they can obliterate any normal defense. The only other abnormal defense Texas A&M will face is LSU's on Nov. 23. (Just imagine the Gordian knot that will result if the Tigers beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9, and if A&M then beats LSU in Baton Rouge, with all three teams finishing 11-1. You thought the 2008 Big 12 South was controversial? This would be three elite SEC teams, each with a signature road win -- and each with a home loss -- all wondering which squad gets to go to Atlanta. The answer would be the head-to-head winner between the two highest-ranked teams in the BCS standings.) Everyone except the Tigers should struggle to stop the Aggies. It's quite possible that Texas A&M can score so many points that it will be able to overcome the shortcomings of its defense.
But the defense will certainly have to get better if the Aggies hope to make coach Kevin Sumlin's postgame words ring true. After Saturday's game, Sumlin reminded his players who won the Texas A&M-Alabama game last year. Then he reminded them who went on to win the national title. "Last year, we were the team that was dancing on their field and having a good time -- they probably felt like we feel right now," Sumlin said. "I said, 'You've got no greater example of how to handle one game than the team in the other locker room.' They went on to have an extremely successful season. We've got a lot of football ahead of us. We've got nine more games. We're playing for the right to play number 13 and number 14."
The only way that the Aggies can reach the lucky 13th game (the SEC championship) is if the Crimson Tide lose at least once and probably twice. Texas A&M certainly revealed a weakness in the 'Bama defense (cornerbacks in man coverage), but none of the other teams left on Alabama's schedule have a receiver quite like Evans, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder and a likely high-round draft pick who Sumlin said "runs like a 5-11 guy." The other requirement is that the Aggies likely have to win their next nine games. There is no way that happens if the defense has another day in which it produces zero sacks and one quarterback hurry. "We've got to come up with a way to get pressure on the quarterback," Texas A&M defensive end Julien Obioha said. "He can't sit there all day."
The Crimson Tide defense did get pressure on the quarterback, but Manziel danced between giants and scanned for receivers with the indifference of someone choosing between Raisin Bran, Frosted Flakes and Shredded Wheat in the cereal aisle. (He usually chose Honey Bunches of Evans.) Still, as well as Manziel and the A&M offense played, the difference in the score was seven points. That's what Texas A&M gave up after a third-quarter Manziel throw bounced off Aggies receiver Travis Labhart and landed in the hands of 'Bama safety Vinnie Sunseri, whose juke of Manziel during a 73-yard pick-six proved that Texas coach Mack Brown's decision to recruit Manziel as a defensive back was an even graver mistake than fans originally believed.
Other than his whiffed attempt at a tackle, Manziel probably doesn't deserve all the blame for that pick. But he blamed himself completely for his earlier interception, which probably also took seven Texas A&M points off the board. That one came in the second quarter. On second-and-goal at the four-yard line with the score tied at 14, Manziel threw a fade toward wideout Ja'Quay Williams. The ball floated over Williams' head and landed in the hands of 'Bama cornerback Cyrus Jones. "You can throw that ball different ways," Manziel said. "You can drop it in the bucket. You can throw it high back shoulder. You can throw it on a line at the back shoulder. We were just kind of on a different page. That's on me. ... It was a big turning point in the game."
The other big turning point came in the third quarter, when Manziel told his teammates that a 21-point deficit should not make them quit. Though the defense offered little help, the Aggies' offense kept fighting. Manziel threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy. Then he threw a 95-yard touchdown to Evans. Then he threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Kennedy. Then Alabama receiver Amari Cooper scooped up an onside kick, and A&M ran out of time.
Alabama won on Saturday, just as Texas A&M won in Tuscaloosa last November. As fans learned last year, all the result proves is which team was better on that day. The Aggies hope they're better for the next three months, and they saw this week that they have a lot of room for improvement.
"This isn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl," Manziel said. "This wasn't the last game of the season. Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win the national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Anything can happen. This is college football. Crazy things happen every week."