COLLEGE STATION — Texas A&M’s great unknown became its giant stumbling block in Saturday’s most-anticipated game of the college football season.The Aggies’ rebuilt defense, which played without multiple starters during the first two weeks because of suspensions and minor injuries, wound up a step slow or out of position on too many key plays in Kyle Field against top-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide, led by quarterback A.J. McCarron’s 334 passing yards and four touchdown passes, shook off a slow start and wore down No. 6 A&M 49-42 in front of 87,596 fans and a CBS national television audience.By doing so, the Crimson Tide achieved payback for last year’s 29-24 loss and grabbed the inside lane among SEC teams in the race to another BCS National Championship Game. Alabama won despite surrendering 628 yards, the most ever allowed by a Crimson Tide defense in the history of the program.But A&M, despite a stellar performance by quarterback Johnny Manziel (career-high 464 passing yards, 562 total yards), never had the ball with a chance to tie the game after falling behind 28-14 in the final minute of the second quarter. That is because Alabama (2-0, 1-0 SEC) clicked off touchdown drives of 75, 80, 80 and 93 yards on four consecutive first-half possessions to flip the momentum after falling behind 14-0.Once in control, the Tide added second-half scoring marches of 83 and 65 yards while cranking out 568 total yards (8.6 per play). Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri mixed in a 73-yard pick-six off a deflected third-quarter pass that gave the Crimson Tide a 35-14 lead to protect over the final 28 minutes. A&M never closed the gap closer than the final margin.“We’ve got to get some things shored up in our defensive front,” said A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who watched four different Alabama ball-carriers combine to average 6.3 yards per attempt, led by T.J. Yeldon (25 carries, 149 yards, TD) and Kenyan Drake (seven carries, 50 yards, TD). “They made some big plays on third downs and made some big chunks of yardage that kept us off-balance.”A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said the Tide broke out “some unbalanced formations that we have never seen before” during their game-turning, first-half scoring surge. “It took us until halftime to get that fixed.”A&M did plenty of offensive damage as well, particularly on connections between Manziel and receiver Mike Evans (seven catches, school-record 279 receiving yards). The final completion set up a 4-yard scoring toss to Malcome Kennedy that allowed the Aggies (2-1, 0-1) to pull within 49-42 with 15 seconds to play.But Alabama recovered the ensuing onside kick, ending the Aggies’ opportunity to knock off the nation’s top-ranked team for a second consecutive season. But not A&M’s hope of reaching the BCS title game.Sumlin stressed that point in the locker room, and many of the players reiterated it after the gut-wrenching setback.“For us, this isn’t the end of our season. This wasn’t the Super Bowl,” Manziel said. “Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win the national championship. ... Anything can happen. This is college football and crazy things happen every week. So you never know.”What is becoming clear is that A&M’s prolific offense must continue to carry a young defense that is allowing 489 yards and 36 points per game (counting the Alabama output). The missed assignments that marked previous efforts against Rice and Sam Houston State also were evident Saturday.McCarron’s 44-yard flea-flicker for a touchdown to DeAndrew White burned A&M defensive back De’Vante Harris, making his season debut after a two-game suspension. Kenny Bell’s shake-and-bake move in space freed him to complete a 51-yard catch-and-run play against safety Clay Honeycutt, filling in for the injured Floyd Raven (collarbone).McCarron, who was not sacked, said he could not recall the last time he was better protected in the pocket by his offensive line.“The offensive line did an unbelievable job. I don’t think I touched the grass all day,” McCarron said. “I can’t be more proud of my guys.”For A&M, defensive strides will need to be made if the Aggies hope to resurface as a November contender to play in the BCS title game. The possibility exists, offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said.“The defense, some games, will help us. We know in the future they’ll get better,” Ogbuehi said. “They’re so young and inexperienced … [but] they’ve got a lot of moxie. From this game on, I think you’re going to see a difference with the defense.”But any future improvement will arrive too late to erase Saturday’s high-profile loss to the top-ranked Tide.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch