By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Defense wins championships. That’s been a trademark saying in college football for ages, but a team like Texas A&M tends to make us forget that old adage with its high-powered, hurry-up offense that seems capable of putting up points at will.
Johnny Manziel – who has been one of the best stories in the game this year – and his offensive comrades put on a great show against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday night, as they’ve done all year long. With Manziel and Co. racking up 29 points and 418 total yards against the nation’s best total defense, the offense certainly deserves its share of credit for A&M’s dethroning of the top-ranked Tide.
But they had help. A lot of it. Ultimately, it was the play of the defense in Tuscaloosa that decided the game late and secured TAMU’s first victory over a No. 1 squad since 2002.
Texas A&M surrendered plenty of yards to Bama – 431 in all – but the Aggies came up with big play after big play on the road when they needed them most to hold off the Crimson Tide and declare themselves a force in their new conference.
The Aggies held the Alabama offense scoreless in the first quarter, forcing two punts and registering the first interception off quarterback AJ McCarron since Nov. 12, 2011. The strong showing from the D out of the gate allowed Johnny Football room to operate and eventually build a 20-0 advantage less than 15 minutes into the ballgame.
After a resurgence from the Tide in the second quarter that cut the Aggie lead to six at the break, the defense rose to the occasion in the deciding second half. AJ McCarron got it going through the air, gashing A&M for big gains several times; in the second half alone, the junior singal-caller connected with Tide receivers on three bombs of 50 yards or more. But despite bending considerably in big moments, the Aggies never broke and maintained their lead from start to finish. The unit absorbed several haymakers from Alabama, withstanding punch after punch only to rise up and land shots of its own in return.
Holding a lead early on in the fourth quarter, the Aggies got burned by Alabama’s Amari Cooper for a 50-yard pass from McCarron, who connected with Cooper on an out-and-up down the right sideline. That play ignited the home crowd, and suddenly a familiar feeling began to emerge. It was the same feeling that emerged late in the game last week at Death Valley when the Tide marched 72 yards for the game-winning score against LSU in the final minutes.
An Alabama rally was brewing, and it seemed like the game was about to swing in the Crimson Tide’s favor.
That feeling didn’t last long, however, as the A&M defense subdued the Tide by forcing a fumble from T.J. Yeldon on the very next play to regain possession for its offense. The Aggies rode the momentum of that turnover to their most important score of the game, a 24-yard strike from Manziel to Malcolm Kennedy that gave TAMU a two-score cushion.
Alabama responded, as all great teams do, with a big drive of its own.
McCarron found Cooper for another big completion, this one resulting in a 54-yard touchdown. The Crimson Tide was right back in the game, trailing by five points with six minutes remaining on the clock. The Aggie offense was unable to answer, following that up with a quick three-and-out (its third of the second half), and that familiar feeling began to creep back into Bryant-Denny.
With the pressure shifted squarely back onto the shoulders of the A&M defense, the Tide landed one last punch that left the Aggies staggering. McCarron let it fly once again, this time hitting Kenny Bell for 54 yards to set Bama up with first-and-goal at the TAMU six-yard line. The knockout blow was coming.
But just when a Tide touchdown appeared imminent, the A&M defense stymied Alabama on four straight plays inside the 10. The Ags corralled McCarron twice on scrambles and stuffed an Eddie Lacy run before landing their own knockout punch with another interception on fourth-and-goal from the two.
The Aggies certainly made a few mistakes on D, but they made up for them by doing what most teams have not been able to do all season: Forcing a usually mistake-free team into several game-changing blunders. The same Alabama squad that had only committed eight turnovers in nine games committed three on Saturday night; the same quarterback that had his Heisman moment in a dramatic win last week was intercepted twice and robbed of another potential Heisman moment in a dramatic loss.
The SEC’s second-best rushing attack was held to 122 yards on the ground – its second-lowest output of the season – and when the No. 1 team in America needed six yards to pick up a win, it could only manage four.
So as we analyze the Aggies’ first signature win in the SEC, feel free to marvel at the accomplishments of the A&M offense. After all, converting 11-of-18 third downs against a Nick Saban defense is no small task, and Manziel’s usual reel of highlight plays was as captivating as ever, so there’s nothing wrong with talking about the greatness on that side of the ball.
Just make sure you don’t shortchange the TAMU defense for all that it was able to accomplish against the top-ranked team in college football.