Texas A&M showed football coach Kevin Sumlin the money Saturday, with athletic director Eric Hyman explaining the new six-year deal proves A&M “wants to have a viable program and be competitive on the national level.”
Given a high-profile chance to make a national statement Saturday night, No. 21 A&M spit the bit during crunch time in a 28-21 loss to No. 5 Missouri. As a result, the Aggies became the stepping stone that launched Mizzou, a 5-7 team last season, into its first SEC Championship Game as a second-year member of its new league.
When the season started, that was the role A&M envisioned for itself. But the Aggies (8-4, 4-4 SEC), also Big 12 expatriates in their second SEC season, were eliminated from the West Division race weeks ago. And when given a chance to be the team that altered the East Division title race, A&M’s SEC-best offense could not muster a first down on any of its last three drives after tying matters 21-21 with 10:43 to play on Ben Malena’s 7-yard run.
An A&M offense that entered the game averaging a league-high 45.6 points and 552.6 yards per game gained exactly 1 yard on its final nine offensive snaps at Faurot Field. The Aggies punted three times and watched the defense — which played arguably its best game of the season — wear down to the point that it surrendered Henry Josey’s game-deciding, 57-yard touchdown run with 3:34 remaining.
Josey, who rushed for a game-high 96 yards, broke through a hole between the tackles and ran untouched into the end zone for the score that secured an SEC East title for Missouri (11-1, 7-1). Mizzou will advance into this week’s unlikely All-Tigers showdown in the SEC Championship Game between Mizzou and No. 4 Auburn, which upset No. 1 Alabama 34-28 in Saturday’s game that decided the West Division title.
Last season, Missouri and Auburn posted a combined 2-14 record in SEC play. And both victories were by Missouri, which would have been left out of the SEC title game matchup in favor of No. 10 South Carolina (10-2, 6-2) if the Aggies had prevailed Saturday.
But A&M, for a second consecutive week, struggled offensively. The Aggies managed only 379 yards against Mizzou, 173 below their season average, and were unable to maintain their 14-7 halftime lead. For the second consecutive week, A&M scored less than half of its season average.
In the Aggies’ last eight quarters, including last week’s 34-10 loss to LSU, A&M has managed a total of 31 points. In its first 10 games, A&M topped the 40-point mark every time out.
“If you can hold Texas A&M to 21 points, you’re playing really good defense. That’s an understatement,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I can’t say enough about these guys and the quiet mission they were on since training camp. It’s kind of surreal.”
A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman winner, threw for 195 yards, the lowest total in any game he has started this season. He finished with 216 total yards, also a season-low for any game he has started.
Although Manziel drew some sideline interest from trainers during the game, he never left the contest and Sumlin did not acknowledge any injury afterward. Pinkel said he thought Manziel became frustrated as the game unfolded.
“That guy is a tremendous player, but he didn’t have a very big impact on this game,” Pinkel said. “You could see his frustration that we kept him under the ropes a little bit.”
Asked about Manziel, Sumlin said: “Johnny has had better games and he’s had worse games. There’s a lot of pressure on him every week to be great. There’s more guys than him out there.”
After limiting Missouri to 192 yards and one touchdown in the first half, the A&M defense surrendered three touchdown drives after intermission. Mizzou marched 75, 57 and 66 yards for its second-half TDs, with receiver Dorian Green-Beckham (7 catches, 93 yards, 1 TD) and Josey (13 carries, 96 yards, 1 TD) doing much of the damage.
“I’m not happy about what has happened the last couple of weeks,” Sumlin said, reflecting on a two-game losing streak that could drop the Aggies out of the national polls. “But we have one more chance to go out and win a football game [in A&M’s bowl game].”
But for Saturday, the Aggies were forced to watch the Mizzou crowd rush the field in celebration of the Tigers’ SEC East title and impending trip to Atlanta. At the beginning of the season, the Aggies envisioned being the former Big 12 school that made its mark in Atlanta in December.
But that will have to wait for another day, even though this one began with a long-term commitment to the coach who has helped elevate the A&M program the past two seasons.
“I couldn’t be more excited with where the program is going. Kevin has done an absolutely marvelous job,” Hyman said, reflecting on the new agreement in principle with Sumlin. “There’s a good foundation. We still have a ways to go with the program. We’re not there.”
Missouri drove home that final point, loud and clear, Saturday night while wrapping up an SEC East Division title.