No. 1 Alabama stunned by Texas A&M 29-24

By Marc Torrence

There was a team in Bryant-Denny Stadium that jumped out to a big, early lead, overcame a sluggish start to the second half, and ultimately came away with a win. Only Saturday, it wasn’t Alabama.

The No. 1 Crimson Tide fell to Texas A&M 29-24 Saturday, sending most of the 101,821 fans in attendance home stunned. The Aggies exploded for 20 unanswered points in the first quarter, led by true freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, and outlasted a comeback attempt to give Alabama its first loss of the season and take it out of the driver’s seat for a second straight appearance in the BCS National Championship game.

“We probably dug a ditch that we couldn’t quite dig out of,” head coach Nick Saban said. “They certainly outplayed us in the game today. Their offense is a very difficult offense to stop.”

“Texas A&M was a good team. They played their hearts out tonight,” wide receiver Kenny Bell said. “We always plan on finishing the game and we came up short tonight. It was heartbreaking.”

Trailing 29-17, Alabama came two yards short of putting together what would have been an epic comeback for the second week in a row. Quarterback AJ McCarron hit true freshman Amari Cooper for a 54-yard touchdown to bring the deficit to just five, injecting a burst of life back into Bryant-Denny.

After forcing a three-and-out, Alabama took over with 4:27 left in the game, in position for another thrilling finish. McCarron once again completed a deep pass, this time to junior Kenny Bell – a 54-yard strike to the 6-yard line.

On first down, McCarron scrambled in the pocket trying to find an open receiver, but was tackled for no gain. Eddie Lacy rushed for a yard to the 5-yard line on second down. On third down, McCarron ran around again, this time thinking he could make a dash for the end zone. He ended up down at the two.

“If that guy wouldn’t have tripped me up, I think I would have gotten in,” McCarron said. “But stuff happens.”

On fourth and goal from the 2-yard line, Alabama decided to go to the air for the third time on the drive. McCarron rolled left and fired a quick pass that was intercepted by Deshazor Everett.

“I wished we would have run it just like you, because passing it didn’t work. If we didn’t run it, then you’d be asking me why we didn’t pass it,” Saban said about the play call. “I’m not going to criticize the call, but I’m like everybody else, when it doesn’t work, I wish we had done something else.”

Alabama forced the Aggies to punt one more time with 40 seconds left in the game. But the Tide jumped before the snap, giving A&M a first down that sealed the game.

The loss leaves Alabama on the outside looking in to the national championship picture. The Tide now needs two of Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame to lose before the end of the season and a little bit of help from the BCS rankings.

A trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game remains very much alive, however. A win against Auburn in two weeks would clinch an SEC West title and a berth in the conference championship game.

“That’s football. Things are going to happen your way and things aren’t,” McCarron said. “And everything didn’t go our way and it’s over and done with now. We’ve got to fight through a little bit of adversity we’re facing and, like I said, finish out strong.”

Manziel was the catalyst of an explosive Aggie offense that had its way with Alabama’s defense for much of the first half. He dazzled a national television audience with his ability to extend plays and make defenders miss.

Manziel completed 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another 107 yards in the win.

“Guy is very good, man. He created a lot of great plays for his teammates,” defensive end Damion Square said. “When you go get him, you’ve got to be sound in your skill or he’s going to expose you.”

After a three-and-out to start the game by Alabama’s offense, Manziel led the Aggies 73 yards down the field in nine plays to give his team an early 7-0 lead.

Alabama got its only first down of the first quarter from Eddie Lacy on the subsequent drive, but it was stalled when McCarron threw his first interception in 289 passing attempts.

On the ensuing play, Manziel faked an option run, then fired a pass down the middle of the field that landed on Kenric McNeal’s fingertips down to the nine. Two plays later, he danced away from Alabama’s pass rush and found Ryan Swope wide open in the end zone for a touchdown.

After another three-and-out, Manziel led a 14-play, 73-yard drive that ended with the Aggies’ third straight touchdown to start the game. But a missed extra point meant only a 20-point lead.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Saban said of Manziel. “The players have to know that they have to contain him, that they’re gonna scramble. That he’s very elusive, he’s instinctive in the pocket, and he’s also fast.”

Alabama appeared to settle in following the trifecta of opening blows. It scored twice before halftime to cut the score to 20-14 going into the intermission.

“The best way to defend [Manziel] is when he wasn’t out there,” Saban said. “When we kept the ball, and we put some drives together, it changed the momentum of the game, and it changed how we played defense. We played better.”

The two teams traded field goals after halftime, and Alabama had two chances to take a one-point lead with a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The first time, it went three-and-out. The next, with 9:10 left in the fourth quarter, ended when true freshman T.J. Yeldon fumbled on the Aggies’ 30-yard line.

Manziel then completed two straight passes for 66 yards and a touchdown, but missed the two-point conversion, giving A&M the 29-17 lead.

“We’re disappointed, obviously. Just so many missed opportunities,” center Barrett Jones said. “We settled in and really started to move the ball, but the difference in the game: we turned the ball over and they didn’t.”

Alabama still has two regular season games against Western Carolina and Auburn, a potential trip to the SEC Championship Game, as well as a post-season bowl game left to play. And as it learned last year, one loss doesn’t necessarily mean the death of a national championship dream.

“We don’t have an option,” McCarron said. “We’ve got to get back to what we do. We’ve got to win and let everything fall in place.”

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