Familiar fade route leaves Aggies wincing
Blown 10-point lead in the fourth extends team’s late fall woes
AUBURN, Ala. — Texas A&M defensive end Tyree Johnson trudged across the Jordan-Hare Stadium grass following a final whistle, clutching his helmet in his right hand while beating it against his head in disbelief.
Hundreds of miles away and across the Sabine River, plenty of A&M fans were doing the same thing at the same time, only using walls instead of helmets.
A&M changed coaches but one thing hasn’t changed for the agitated Aggies and their fans: their annual late-fall swoons.
No. 20 A&M blew a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter at Auburn, and the Tigers prevailed 28-24 in a suddenly rambunctious setting — one that had been subdued for much of the three previous hours.
“They got momentum at home, and that’s what you can’t (allow) as a road team — you have to finish,” A&M first-year coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We have to learn how to finish. When you get there, you’ve got to put those games away.”
The Aggies (5-4, 3-3 SEC) will stash this one away as another example of their longtime November ills. Under previous coach Kevin Sumlin, A&M typically started the season fast and then stumbled in late October and on through November. From 2013-17 the Aggies were 4-11 against SEC foes in November, a big reason Sumlin was fired and replaced with Fisher last November.
Over eight seasons at Florida State, Fisher was 27-5 in November, but he’s now 0-1 in that critical month with the Aggies, who are finding some old habits hard to break.
“We’re hurting, man,” A&M defensive end Landis Durham said. “We dominate a whole game like that and we preached all week to finish, and we fell short. You let a team like that hang around, they’re going to take advantage of the opportunity.”
In doing so the Tigers (6-3, 3-3 SEC) snapped one of the quirkiest streaks associated with the Aggies since they joined the SEC in 2012: Until Saturday, the road team had won each of the previous six games. Now, Auburn has won two straight against A&M, and the Aggies have lost two consecutive games following a threegame win streak in SEC play.
“We didn’t play our best football in any of the three phases, but what really stands out to me is our guys fighting,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “They didn’t quit, and there were plenty of times they could have.”
The Aggies were seemingly in control at 24-14 with about 10 minutes remaining in the game when they abruptly let off the gas. Their first misstep came when freshman kicker Seth Small missed a 36-yard field goal that would have put A&M up by 13 with 10:27 left.
The Aggies got the ball back following a three-and-out from an until-then inept Auburn offense, but that A&M drive resulted in an interception by quarterback Kellen Mond.
Auburn, suddenly revived, marched 71 yards on eight plays and punched the ball into the end zone from a yard out with 5:14 remaining. The Aggies still led 24-21, but their following drive again stalled behind a suddenly-ineffective Mond, and Auburn’s Christian Tutt returned Braden Mann’s punt 28 yards — with Mann making the tackle.
“We had guys there,” Fisher said of would-be tacklers surrounding Tutt. “They just didn’t make the play.”
This time around, Auburn needed only two plays to grab its first lead since the first half. Former Stephenville High quarterback Jarrett Stidham hooked up with Ryan Davis for a 47-yard gain, and Stidham then connected with Seth Williams on an 11yard touchdown pass against a reeling A&M secondary.
Sumlin passed on recruiting Stidham in 2015 out of Stephenville and again a year later when Stidham chose to transfer from Baylor following a sexual-assault scandal that cost coach Art Briles his job. Stidham has said time and again over the past year how much he enjoys playing the Aggies because, as he put it, “I recruited myself to A&M a little bit harder than they recruited me.”
He’s now defeated the Aggies in consecutive seasons. The Aggies built the 10-point lead early in the third quarter, but Mond was largely ineffective in the second half, and finished 16 of 32 for 220 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception. Fisher said the Aggies’ offensive troubles weren’t all on Mond, in defending his maligned quarterback.
“We’ve got to get open at receiver, too, it’s a mix of everything,” Fisher said. “We threw it for 220 yards and ran it for 201 — we had great balance. And his legs are also a big part of why we were having success.”
The Aggies outgained the Tigers 421-278 in total yards, with Auburn figuring out how to win despite rushing for only 19 yards. The Aggies, still seeking bowl eligibility, close out the regular season with home games against Mississippi, Alabama-Birmingham and No. 4 LSU, after playing three straight on the road.
“This game is really only fun when you win,” Durham said, “so we have turn this around.”
Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams leaps above Texas A&M defensive back Charles Oliver for a touchdown reception during the first half Saturday at Auburn, Ala.