Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
It was billed as the biggest college football game of the 2013 season, and the Alabama Crimson Tide and Texas A&M Aggies didn’t disappoint on Saturday afternoon in College Station. The Crimson Tide survived a manic comeback attempt from Johnny Manziel and the Aggies in the fourth quarter to avenge last season’s loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium with a 49-42 win at Kyle Field.
If you would have told me before the game that Texas A&M was going to rack up 628 yards of offense and score 42 points, all highs given up by the Tide under Nick Saban, I would have told you there was no way the Crimson Tide could win.
But, even in a different style of game then they are accustomed to, Alabama found a way to win as they proved their mettle over and over again. This game was similar to the SEC Championship Game against Georgia last December in that it was a much higher scoring game than the Crimson Tide is comfortable playing in. But, just like in December, they found a way to win.
Through two games, Alabama has not put together a complete game, and yet they are 2-0. In the opener against Virginia Tech, the defense shined and the offense struggled. It was the exact opposite against Texas A&M on Saturday, with the defense having their worst performance of the Saban era, and the offense clicking on all cylinders.
Offensively, all the question marks centered around the offensive line after they were utterly dominated at the point of attack by the Hokies in Atlanta. I said after the game there was no need to panic at the lackluster performance up front due to the strength of Virginia Tech’s front seven, and it being the first game of the year.
The offensive line certainly answered the bell against Texas A&M on Saturday as they dominated the point of attack. While some of the success can be contributed to the Aggies being soft up front, you have to give credit where it is due, and the line certainly rose to the occasion on the big stage.
They opened up huge running lanes for the backs, and AJ McCarron’s jersey was as spotless after the game as it was before. Speaking of McCarron, he rebounded from a rough debut to 2013 with one of his best games as the Tide’s starting QB. We saw just how good McCarron can be when he is given a clean pocket with time to find open receivers.
All the talk after the game was about Manziel, and with due respect to Johnny Football, who was spectacular, McCarron was equally brilliant and avoided the big mistakes that ended up being the downfall of Manziel and the Aggies.
McCarron completed 20-of-29 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. His QB Rating reached astronomical proportions, and he completed passes to 10 different Crimson Tide receivers with all four of his touchdown passes going to different guys.
McCarron’s leadership was on full display as he never wavered despite Alabama digging themselves into an early 14-0 hole. His first touchdown pass came to Kevin Norwood on a beautiful back shoulder throw, which is a pass McCarron has struggled to throw his entire career. His second one was a 44-yard strike on a flea-flicker to a wide open DeAndrew White.
He hit Kenny Bell on a screen pass that Bell took 51 yards to the house. His final touchdown pass of the day proved to be the decisive score. On third and goal from the A&M five and just two and a half minutes remaining, the whole world expected a run by the Crimson Tide to set up a field goal to extend the lead to 10.
Instead, McCarron called his own number, and threw a play-action pass to Jalston Fowler to put the game out of reach. The play was eerily reminiscent of the play the Crimson Tide ran in 2009 to beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl with Greg McElroy hitting Roy Upchurch to preserve the Tide’s perfect season.
Alabama’s passing game flourished all afternoon. In the first game against Virginia Tech, it seemed like the offense was too centered around Amari Cooper. Yesterday, however, the ball was spread around succinctly. Four receivers had at least 50 yards.
The big development in the passing game was the emergence of freshman tight end O.J. Howard. He caught three passes for 68 yards, and came up with a couple of huge catches on third down. With all the talent on the outside, Howard can be a lethal weapon for the Tide’s offense, and it was good to see him breakout.
While McCarron dug Alabama out of the hole with his passing, the runners helped Alabama control the clock and go on long, sustained drives later in the game. T.J. Yeldon led the way, rushing 25 times for 149 yards and a touchdown. Yeldon was brilliant for the majority of the game, but had a major gaffe in the fourth quarter with Alabama looking to put the game away.
He had a costly fumble near Texas A&M’s goal line with the Tide leading 42-28, and that ended up being a 14-point swing as Manziel hit Mike Evans for a 95-yard touchdown a few plays later.
Yeldon was spelled sufficiently in this game unlike the opener with Kenyan Drake and Jalston Fowler running the ball well. Drake ran out of Saban’s doghouse after missing the opener, rushing for 50 yards on 7 carries. Drake showed the same speed and burst that made him so effective in mop-up duty last season, and it was an impressive performance considering these were the first meaningful carries of his career.
Jalston Fowler, after looking timid and unsure in the opener, put away concerns of his ability with a strong performance. He ran the ball hard again, amassing 37 yards on just four carries.
It was all clicking for the Tide’s offense as they showcased their embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball.
It wasn’t nearly as fun of a day on the other side of the ball as the defense surrendered a record-setting day to the Texas A&M offense.
To be fair, the defense did perform well in stretches, and came up with a couple of big turnovers that proved to be the difference in the game.
Cyrus Jones, who was consistently burned in coverage, intercepted a Manziel pass in the endzone in the second quarter of a tie game, and it could be said that it was the turning point of the game.
Vinnie Sunseri had his second pick-six in as many games as he intercepted a Manziel pass and took it 73 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
After surrendering 14 points in a hurry to start the game, Alabama’s defense didn’t allow another point until six minutes into the third quarter. But Manziel and company staged a furious rally and the Tide’s defense had no answer in the fourth quarter.
You can criticize Alabama’s defense as much as you want, but that would be taking away from the spectacular performance by Johnny Manziel. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart figured out that you really can’t stop him; you just hope to contain him and limit the damage. He is as spectacular of a college football player as I’ve ever seen.
He has an innate ability to escape pressure and make plays down the field like no one I’ve ever seen. While he did throw two costly interceptions, he put up 562 yards of total offense (464 passing, 98 rushing), and threw five touchdowns.
As incredible as Manziel was, he got a lot of help from Mike Evans, who eviscerated the Crimson Tide’s secondary for 279 yards and a touchdown on nearly 40 yards per reception. He embarrassed John Fulton and Cyrus Jones time and time again. The only Alabama corner who had even marginal success against Evans was Deion Belue, but he missed the entire second half because of turf toe.
Turf toe is a kind of injury that can linger, and even if he is able to tough it out in the upcoming weeks, he may not be 100% for the remainder of the season, which is a scary thought due to the lack of depth at corner. Don’t be surprised to see freshman cornerbacks Jonathan Cook and Maurice Smith get eased into action over the next couple of weeks.
While the front seven did allow 164 rushing yards, the bulk of the damage was done by Manziel scrambling as he racked up 98 of those yards himself. Manziel generally had a lot of time to throw due to Alabama trying to contain him in the pocket, which worked at times and didn’t at other times.
I don’t think the performance is as much of an indictment on the defense as it is was just a spectacular performance by the best college football player in the country. Fortunately, Alabama won’t see an offense nearly as dangerous as this one for the remainder of the regular season.
On special teams, Alabama has yet to attempt a field goal through two games. Cade Foster is perfect on extra points so far, as he hit all seven of his attempts against the Aggies. Field goal kicking is still scary, and it’ll be interesting to see if Foster has improved when he actually gets the opportunity to attempt one.
Cody Mandell continues to be spectacular punting the ball. He punted three times for an average of 53-yards per kick and a long of 60. His improvement over the course of his career has been amazing to watch.
In the end, it was a great win for the Crimson Tide, and a game that will not be soon forgotten. All respect in the world goes out to Manziel and Texas A&M. He’s a hell of a player and that’s a hell of a football team that deserved every bit of hype it received. They proved to be a Top-10 team without a shadow of a doubt on Saturday afternoon, and I don’t see them falling out of the Top-10 all year.
Also, if the cards fall the right way, it wouldn’t be that big of a surprise to see a rematch between the two in Pasadena.
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