If nothing else, we can say this about Texas A&M’s running backs: They are certifiable mudders. Or as close to mudders as anyone can be while playing on artificial turf in a driving rain.
The Aggies shifted into all-terrain mode with their versatile offense in the second half Saturday and used a ground-and-pound approach to subdue pesky Arkansas 45-33 in a soggy SEC showdown at Razorback Stadium.
With the game on the line and No. 10 A&M watching its defense surrender yards in droves to a previously stagnant Razorbacks’ offense, the Aggies took the ball out of the air and placed it in the hands of running backs Tra Carson, Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and Ben Malena in crunch time.
The move resulted in a pair of game-turning touchdown drives in which quarterback Johnny Manziel’s entire contribution amounted to 15 handoffs and a 3-yard scramble.
But that is what the conditions dictated and A&M obliged, racking up 262 rushing yards and flashing a four-deep collection of backs that ranks among the nation’s best.
Normally, the Aggies (4-1, 1-1 in SEC) lean heavily on the right arm of their 2012 Heisman Trophy winner to decide games in crunch time. But this time, the Aggies went smash-mouth. And they did a better job of it than Arkansas (3-2, 0-1), which entered the game as the team with the established between-the-tackles mindset.
“The luxury of this offense is we have multiple answers for what the defense gives us,” said Malena, who scored the last of A&M’s three rushing touchdowns on a 1-yard plunge with 10:08 remaining. “This shows another dimension of our offense. We’re considered ‘Air Raid’ but this shows what we can do.”
With momentum slipping away while the Aggies clung to a 31-27 lead, coach Kevin Sumlin turned to the tandem of Carson and Trey Williams to handle the heavy lifting on a nine-play, nine-run, 68-yard march that consumed 4:42 and offered a respite to a struggling A&M defense that played most of the game without starting nose guard Kirby Ennis (left knee).
Carson logged consecutive carries covering 20 yards and Trey Williams did the rest, rushing seven times for 48 yards. He capped the drive with a 17-yard scoring jaunt.
When Arkansas closed the gap to 38-33, A&M unleashed a seven-play, 57-yard march in which the carries went to Carson (3), Trey Williams (2) and Manziel before Malena barreled in from the 1 to give the Aggies a 45-33 lead the team would protect over the final 10:08.
For the game, A&M had no rusher top the 100-yard mark. But four ball carriers gained at least 40 yards, led by Trey Williams (9 carries, 83 yards, 1 TD). Five backs had carries of at least 10 yards, including a timely 20-yard burst by Brandon Williams (four carries, 18 yards). As a team, the Aggies averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
Sumlin said the power game became essential as conditions deteriorated.
“In the second half, with the elements the way they were, our offensive line played very well,” Sumlin said. “It’s the strength of this team.”
And the backs took full advantage of the holes the linemen opened, helping A&M control the ball for 31:43 while keeping a surprisingly effective Arkansas passing game (282 yards, three TDs) on the sideline during long stretches in the second half.
The defense also chipped in with three big, second-half plays: two interceptions and a drive-killing, fourth-down pass breakup in the A&M end zone. The biggest interception belonged to safety Deshazor Everett, who returned it 34 yards for a touchdown in the first minute of the third quarter to stretch the lead to 31-20.
Everett said he jumped a slant route the Razorbacks had run with success earlier in the game.
“That gave us back the momentum,” nickel back Toney Hurd Jr. said. “It changed the momentum of the game.”
A&M maintained the momentum by running the ball more effectively than Arkansas (201 yards, 6.7 per carry) in crunch time. By doing so, the Aggies managed to quiet the Arkansas crowd on multiple occasions following Razorbacks scores. A&M also managed to walk out of Fayetteville with only its second victory in its last nine trips, dating to an era when both schools were Southwest Conference members.
The Aggies, who won their ninth consecutive game away from College Station, survived despite giving up 483 yards to a team that produced just 283 yards in last week’s 28-24 loss to Rutgers.
“Whenever you go on the road and win, it’s a team win and you have to handle the momentum in environments like this,” Sumlin said. “Any time you go on the road and win in this league, it’s a good win.”
Even better when you can salt it away with a ground-and-pound offense on a rainy night in Razorback Stadium.