COLLEGE STATION -- Texas A&M fans delivered an electric atmosphere Saturday. The Aggies' offense, for one half, unleashed an electrifying freshman quarterback.
But the Florida defense pulled the plug on all of that in crunch time, allowing the 24th-ranked Gators to rally for a 20-17 victory that spoiled a potential validation celebration in A&M's debut as a Southeastern Conference member and Kevin Sumlin's first game as the Aggies' coach.
Instead, an overflow crowd left Kyle Field with an unsatisfying taste of leftovers from the Mike Sherman administration: another blown second-half lead, followed by frustrations aired by veteran team leaders.
A&M changed leagues, uniforms and coaches after last year's 7-6 season. But the bottom line remained the same Saturday: the offense, as well as the lead, disappeared down the stretch.
That happened in five of last year's six losses. And the trend carried over into 2012 because the Aggies' offense, which rolled for 269 yards and 17 points in the first half, managed only three first downs, no points and no snaps on Florida's side of midfield after intermission.
On a day when A&M fans came to celebrate a new era of Aggies football, receiver Ryan Swope said players "let down this university" and one another with their inability to close out another game they had within their grasp.
"That's ...the biggest disappointment," said Swope, a senior. "It was so electric in that stadium. We have the best fans in college football. It's tough going into that locker room knowing how many people you've let down."
Another senior, linebacker Sean Porter, put it more succinctly.
"It's embarrassing. I'm really tired of losing games and talking about what we should have done," said Porter, who blamed the loss on missed tackles, blown assignments and mental mistakes.
Both seniors said Saturday's loss brought back uncomfortable memories from last season. Sumlin called the second-half swoon "the elephant in the room" for a team seeking to rebound from last year's shattered psyche.
"It's something we've been addressing," Sumlin said.
Asked if this felt like a continuation of last season, Porter said: "Yeah, kind of ...It's embarrassing. You shouldn't lose a game because of mental mistakes ...Whatever it is, we need to figure out what we need to do to win games."
A&M seemed well on the way in the first half. Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel led scoring drives of 66, 81 and 76 yards on the Aggies' first three possessions. A&M did not punt in the first half, and Manziel showed plenty of promise as an elusive runner (60 yards, 1 TD) and a capable passer (23-of-30, 173 yards, no interceptions) in his college debut.
But the Aggies did nothing but punt after intermission. Six possessions, six punts. Florida tweaked its defense to try to minimize Manziel's running lanes in the second half. It worked.
The Gators limited the Aggies' offense to 65 yards (2.8 per snap) in the second half while the Florida offense moved 67 yards for a field goal and 62 yards for the game-winning touchdown to erase a 17-10 deficit.
When the dust cleared on A&M's long-anticipated SEC debut in front of 87,114 fans and a national television audience, the Aggies (0-1, 0-1 in SEC) were staring at their eighth consecutive loss to a team from their new league. A&M's last victory over an SEC team came in 1995, when the Aggies defeated LSU 33-17.
Does this suggest the Aggies are overmatched in their new surroundings? Not in the estimation of linebacker Jonathan Stewart, who contributed a team-high 17 tackles and pointed to the Aggies' edge in total yards (334-307) despite the shortfall on the scoreboard.
"The move to the SEC is great, for the school and the fans, and all the hoorah that goes along with it," Stewart said. "Overall, we were confident. We had plenty of opportunities and, unfortunately, we just didn't get the job done. The sun will come up in the morning. We can't hang our head on losing to Florida and everything that surrounds it."
Among A&M's upsides that surfaced Saturday: a relentless pass rush (8 sacks) and the play of Manziel, who did not have a turnover and kept the offense turnover-free. Sumlin envisions better days ahead for his freshman quarterback.
"Anyone who's watched him play knows he's not a normal freshman," Sumlin said. "He's not timid."
But can he and Sumlin prevent this team's psyche from circling the drain after another blown second-half lead? Sumlin thinks so, but time will tell.
"That's a good question about the psyche of this team," Sumlin said. "Walking in this spring, you could feel it. Based on this game today, which is the only game I've coached here, I didn't feel it,"
But two of his senior leaders did. And that took the joy out of A&M's planned celebration in its SEC debut.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760