Alabama came up with two key interceptions, one keeping Texas A&M from an almost certain touchdown and one being returned for a Crimson Tide touchdown, and the importance of those picks can hardly be minimized in a 49-42 victory.
The Crimson Tide, ranked first in the nation, scored what seemed to be a clinching touchdown when quarterback A.J. McCarron connected with running back Jalston Fowler on a third down, five-yard pass with 2:28 remaining. That gave Bama a two touchdown lead, which was just enough since the Aggies used most of the remaining time getting a final touchdown. When Amari Cooper recovered A&M’s onsides kick effort, Alabama could start the celebration at Kyle Field in College Station.
It’s almost hard to imagine that a couple of Alabama defensive plays would be critical so success when Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner last year for sixth-ranked Texas A&M, threw for 464 yards (28-39) and five touchowns and ran 11 times for 98 yards. But interceptions by Cyrus Jones in the Aggies end zone and by Vinnie Sunseri returned 73 yards for a touchdown were pivotal in the Tide victory.
McCarron was pretty sharp for Alabama, too. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t have an interception. T.J. Yeldon led the Tide rushing attack with 27 carries for 149 yards and a touchdown, but Yeldon had a critical fumble near the goalline and also had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that sent Coach Nick Saban on a rant.
McCarron spread his passes among 10 different receivers – five wideouts, three running backs, and two tight ends. DeAndrew White had four catches for 82 yards, freshman tight end O.J. Howard three for 68, and Kevin Norwood three for 52.
Manziel also threw to 10 different receivers, but it was hard not to notice only one – sophomore Mike Evans had seven catches for 279 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown reception. Malcome Kennedy had six catches for 57 yards and three touchdowns.
Both teams had 31 first towns, Texas A&M getting four of theirs by Bama penalties. (The Tide had an uncharacteristic 12 penalties for 104 yards.) Alabama had 66 plays for 568 yards, 8.6 per play, and the Aggies 71 plays for 628 yards, 8.8 per play. Bama had 234 rushing, A&M 164 on the ground; the Tide had 334 passing, the Aggies 464.
Alabama has its Bryant-Denny Stadium debut next Saturday when the Crimson Tide has a non-conference game against Coloado State and its head coach, Jim McElwain, who was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Bama before taking the Colorado State job prior to the 2012 season. Kickoff will be at 6 p.m. CDT with television coverage either on ESPNU or ESPN2.
Early in the game, the Alabama camp had to be thinking, “Haven’t we seen this before?” It looked as though Johnny Manziel and the Texas Aggies were going to run and pass and score at will on the Crimson Tide.
A&M jumped out to a 14-0 lead before Bama answered with four straight touchdowns, including one in the final minute before intermission that gave Alabama a 28-14 halftime lead. The Tide defense got a critical second quarter stop, Cyrus Jones making an interception as Manziel attempted a fade pass on a second-and-goal play from he Crimson Tide four-yard line.
It was no surprise the Aggies decided to receive the opening kickoff. What was a surprise to Alabama was how easy it was for A&M to go 84 yards in just seven plays – two of them long passes (32 and 35 yards) to Mike Evans, the second one to the Alabama five. On third down, Manziel completed a one-yard TD pass to tight end Cameron Clear to complete the 2:39 drive. Taylor Bertolet kicked it to 7-0.
Alabama had a terrible offensive start and punted from its 10-yard line on its first possession. The Aggies then went 59 yards in five plays and took just 1:34 to make it 14-0 on a one-yard Ben Malena run. Manziel had runs of 11 and 13 yards and completed a 34-yard pass to Evans in the drive.
If there was a critical time in the game, it may have been on Bama’s second possession. Down by two touchdowns and no sign of stopping the Aggies, the Tide managed to answer.
AJ McCarron completed passes of 13 yards each to Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood, and then Jalston Fowler broke off a 15-yard run. McCarron then passed to tight end Brian Vogler for 12 yards and completed the drive with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Norwood, who made an excellent leaping grab, then fell into the end zone. The answer had taken just six plays, going the 75 yards in 2:23. Cade Foster kicked the extra point.
A questionable offensive pass interference call against the Aggies helped kill their next drive, and there was one of those rarities of the game – a punt. (Both teams punted only three times. Bama’s Cody Mandell averaged 53 yards per punt.)
From its 20, the Tide drove to a tying touchdown in only six plays, the last one from 44 yards on a flea flicker – McCarron handed off to Fowler who pitched it back to the quarterback who hit a wide open DeAndrew White for the tying score.
The Aggies seemed poised to take the lead following one of Manziel’s magical plays. He looked to be a sack victim on a third down play, but got out of the grasp of Tide defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan and completed a 12-yard pass on third-and-eight. A&M drove to the Bama seven, first and goal, but on second down Manziel was a little long on a fade route and Cyrus Jones picked it off.
Alabama had another A&M-like drive, going 80 yards in four plays in only 1:32. McCarron completed a 27-yard pass to freshman tight end O.J. Howard, and then, on a second and 10 hit Kenny Bell on a quick out. Bell raced down the sideline untouched, 51 yards, to give Bama a 21-14 lead.
Texas A&M was never able to catch the Tide after that.
Alabama forced another punt, which resulted in a long field with 7:08 to play before intermission. (Ironically, the drive was made a little longer because ALABAMA was penalized for having 12 men on the field. Ironic because Kyle Field is known as the home of the 12th man, though that 12th man for the Aggies is the enthusiastic crowd.)
Yeldon had three runs for two first downs and McCarron completed fir down passes to Kevin Norwood and Brian Vogler, and then third tailback Kenyan Drake had two big runs to set up a first-and-goal at the four. With a minute remaining until halftime, Yeldon took it in for a 28-14 advantage at intermission.
Alabama was to get the ball first to start the second half, but with that opportunity the Tide offense fizzled. Fortunately, the defense, in the person of Vinnie Sunseri, put some distance between Bama and the Aggies. Jarrick Williams tipped a Manziel pass and Sunseri grabbed it at the Tide 27. He took it back all the way, juking Manziel along the way. It was 35-14.
A pass interference penalty against Alabama kept an A&M drive alive, and Manziel made the most of it, connecting with Kennedy on a touchdown pass to close the gap to 35-21.
Bama got the margin back to three touchdowns as the third quarter was coming to a close. McCarron hit a couple of first down passes, then turned it over to the ground troops – Yeldon, Fowler, and Drake – with Drake taking in the touchdown for a 42-14 Bama lead going to the fourth quarter.
No one would expect any quit from A&M, and the Aggies struck with another Manziel to Kennedy touchdown, completing a four-play, 80-yard drive that took just a minute and a half. Bama helped the cause with a personal foul penalty and the Aggies benefited from a generous call when a receiver went out of bounds and came back in to make a 20-yard reception. Still, it was 42-28.
But how much does it take against the Texas A&M offense? More than 42, certainly.
Alabama seemed ready to take that next step with a touchdown at the end of a long, time-consuming drive. Bama had driven from its 25 to the Texas A&M one-yard line when on a second-and-goal Yeldon was hit and fumbled.
Three plays later, on third and nine from its own five-yard line, Evans got behind Cyrus Jones, Manziel hit him, and the Aggies had a 95-yard touchdown. The “drive” of 96 yards had taken only 38 seconds and the Aggies were within a touchdown at 42-35 with just over eight minutes to play.
Alabama went on a nine-play, 65-yard drive after A&M kicked off out of bounds. The final play was reminiscent of one against Auburn in 2009 when Greg McElroy hit Roy Upchurch, but it wasn’t exactly the same play. McCarron gave a play action and then dropped the ball into the hands of a wide open Fowler for the five-yard score and a 49-35 lead with 2:28 to play.
Alabama played a soft defense to allow the clock to run down, and Manziel managed to get the Aggies a final score on another pass to Kennedy, but there were no miracles this year as Amari Cooper scooped up the onside kick and Bama watched the time run out.