The No. 1 team in the nation with the best defense and a Heisman contender at quarterback was undisciplined, exhausted and flat Saturday afternoon and it cost them—big time—as the new kid on the block rolled into their house and left with a 29-24 victory.
The now one-loss Crimson Tide (9-1, 6-1 SEC) showed vulnerability right from the start as the No. 15 Aggies (8-2, 5-2), led by redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, scored touchdowns on its first three drives to take a fast and furious 20-0 lead.
The Crimson Tide had won the toss and elected to receive, hoping to score early before Manziel got his chance, but ended up going three-and-out. Then the Aggies' offense took the field and came out of the gate fast. On second-and-7 just three-and-a-half minutes into the game, Alabama was ready to defend a pass play. But Manziel ran a quarterback draw and sprinted upfield for a 29-yard gain to the Alabama-15. After a five-yard pass to Ryan Swope and a few rushes by Ben Malena and Christine Michael, Teas A&M suddenly had a 7-0 lead.
It was more of the same confusion-wise for Alabama's defense on A&M's next two drives. They couldn't figure out the plays and get into the right formations, and once the ball was snapped, they couldn't contain Manziel, which was the No. 1 key heading into this game. He sliced up Bama's stout defense and finished that first quarter with 74 rushing yards and 76 passing, plus a touchdown.
"We probably dug a ditch that we couldn't quite dig out of," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "We didn't play our best game today and we didn't execute the way we needed to. That starts with me. I take full responsibility for not having our team ready to do the things that they needed to do to have a chance to be successful.
"We really had a lot of undisciplined, missed assignments."
Heading into this matchup, Alabama had been outscoring opponents 346-82 and holding them to 228.9 total yards per game and Texas A&M was going to be just another victim on the schedule chopping block. The Tide was put through the ringer last week in Baton Rouge, but they came out with a win. Having overcome adversity that time meant they'd be able to do it again if that's what the Aggies threw at them, right?
Wrong. Alabama faced more adversity against the Aggies than they did against the Tigers. They knew what LSU was going to throw at them. That game is pure strength against strength, two teams who love playing the other because they know each other inside out. But the Aggies are unique and pride themselves on innovative, shifty schemes on both sides of the ball that confuse opponents.
"They came out in some bizarre looks tonight, running all kinds of things we hadn't seen before" said center Barrett Jones.
"They did a good job scheming up and showing us things we didn't practice," said quarterback A.J. McCarron, who, before Saturday hadn't been intercepted in 289 pass attempts, but was picked off twice by the Aggies.
As the saying goes, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Last week Alabama got lucky because it was prepared and took advantage of key opportunities—namely two game-defining two-minute drills—to beat LSU. This week against A&M, the Crimson Tide had no such luck.
Things did almost pan for the Tide in the end though. With 4:27 to play in the game, McCarron hit go-to deep threat Kenny Bell for a 54-yard bomb to put Alabama at the A&M 6-yard-line. But the play calls from there on out were mind-boggling. Alabama, known for being a team that wins with its running game, had been forced to pass the ball most of the game thanks to the Aggies rush defense. But with four plays in short yardage, that might have been the time to pound it down Texas A&M's throat.
After one run and a couple pass plays, Alabama faced fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard-line. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier called for a pass and McCarron forced one into tight coverage and was intercepted at the goal line.
But all was not lost quite yet. With about 35 seconds left, A&M needed to convert a fourth-and-1 from its own 13-yard-line. With the crowd on fire and the season on the line, all Alabama's defense had to do was make a stop and its offense would get the ball in the red zone. But true freshman linebacker Tyler Hayes jumped offsides and A&M ran out the rest of the clock for the upset.
"The players were told, ‘Make sure you stay onsides, they are going to try to get you to jump offsides with a shift or a motion or something,'" Saban said. "The players are disappointed. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here."
Saban mentioned in his post-game press conference that he was concerned heading into this game that his players were out of gas after playing LSU.
"It seemed like early in the week we were pretty good, but later in the week, emotionally, I'm not really talking about physically, we just couldn't seem to get the kind of mental energy and intensity that we needed to play against this kind of team," he said.
Saban cited last week's trip to Death Valley, plus previous games against then-No. 11 Mississippi State and playing rivaled Tennessee at Neyland Stadium at night as things that have taken their toll on his players.
"We had a pretty tough stretch," he said. "And that's no excuse."
Alabama knew Manziel, who finished the day going 24-of-31 for 253 yards and two touchdowns and led his team with 92 rushing yards, was elusive, instinctive, fast, a scrambler. They made adjustments after every quarter and Saban said he thought they got better at defending him as the game went on. But it all comes down to covering your man and paying attention to detail, which is certainly hard to do when playing tired, unprepared and undisciplined football.
"We knew this was going to be a difficult game and that they had a really good team," Saban said. "They are a better team now than they were [when they played Florida and LSU]. We were going to need to play our best game and we didn't."
Jones summed things up the best:
"You forget why it is we win," he said. "It's not because we're better. It's because we practice harder, we work harder. I don't think we did a good job of practicing hard all week."
And that's just Alabama's luck.
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