At Texas A&M, it is now quarterback Kenny Hill’s world. And there is unbridled joy in Aggieland about the Southlake Carroll graduate’s stunning debut as a starter in Thursday’s 52-28 wipeout of No. 9 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Hill, a sophomore who played sparingly last season as Johnny Manziel’s backup, threw for a school-record 511 yards and led eight scoring drives in helping No. 21 A&M record its first road victory over a Top 10 opponent since knocking off No. 1 Alabama 29-24 on Nov. 10, 2012 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Although all signs Thursday point to South Carolina being overrated by poll voters, that should not diminish from the thoroughness of the Aggies’ victory over a team that entered as a double-digit favorite with the nation’s longest home winning streak (18 games).
Instead, it was the Aggies who showed SEC Network viewers that they may have been overlooked in August discussions about potential participants in the inaugural College Football Playoff’s four-team bracket. A&M, which featured 14 freshmen on Thursday’s depth chart, showed no hesitation and no stage fright while battering the Gamecocks from start to finish.
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“I was more excited than nervous. We were ready to prove people wrong and show we could be a good team without Johnny,” said Hill, who drove home that point with a school-record 44 completions that went to 12 different receivers. “I was ready to go. I’ve been ready for this my whole life.”
Asked if he envisioned a record-shattering performance in his college debut, Hill said: “Absolutely not. To play like I did, it’s a dream come true. I don’t even know what to say, I’m so excited.”
Hill completed 44 of 60 passes, led the A&M offense to 680 yards and established a dominant tone immediately. The Aggies scored on their first possession, a 67-yard touchdown march, and collected 393 yards in the first half while racing to a 31-14 lead elicited boos from the crowd and honesty from South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
During a halftime interview, Spurrier said: “They’re kicking our butts.”
After the contest, Spurrier added: “That team was so much better than us, it wasn’t funny. They outcoached us and outplayed us.”
That included the Aggies’ defense, a source of pregame angst. But the unit was solid despite the loss of starting linebacker A.J. Hilliard, a transfer from TCU who dislocated an ankle in the third quarter. Coach Kevin Sumlin said Hilliard would be “out for a while.”
Against a sporadic South Carolina offense, the Aggies unveiled a pass rush that was lacking last season. One of the team’s three sacks belonged to defensive end Myles Garrett, a five-star freshman signee from Arlington Martin. Free safety Armani Watts, another heralded freshman, broke up a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter and had a third-quarter interception.
But this victory belonged to a high-powered offense that, if anything, looked more efficient without its 2012 Heisman Trophy winner squatting under center. A&M scored on seven of its first eight possessions against a defense that surrendered more than 44 points for the first time since falling to Auburn 56-17 in the 2010 SEC championship game.
Hill did most of that damage, connecting on 27 of 35 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the first-half barrage that gave the Aggies a comfortable cushion to protect in crunch time. Hill’s halftime passing total (299 yards) was more than Manziel produced in six of 13 games last season. He finished with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and a postgame inquiry about whether he’d welcome being nicknamed “King of the Hill.”
“I like that,” Hill said. “They called me that in high school some. I don’t like ‘Kenny Football.’ ”
So we can scratch that one. But we should add Hill’s name to the Heisman Trophy watch lists, considering the last two winners were first-year starters at quarterback. That describes Hill, whose record-setting night did not surprise A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.
“We knew what we had with Kenny and he showed the world what he could do,” Ogbuehi said. “I saw no nerves in him. He was talkative before the game. He was on a mission.”
That mission ended with Johnny Football surrendering two school passing records that belonged to him earlier in the evening. More telling, in Sumlin’s mind, is that the victory offered a strong rejoinder to critics who predicted A&M would slide back to the pack in the SEC now that Johnny Football has left the building.
“What we did showed we’re not a one-trick pony,” Sumlin said. “What Kenny did shows we’re making the right decision at quarterback. To come in here and beat a top 10 opponent on the road says a lot about what we can achieve with a bunch of young guys.”
As of Thursday night, Hill clearly is the new star in College Station and the quarterback teammates view as their leader. You can find his name the school record book under “most passing yards in a game,” right above Johnny Whatshisname.