TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Evan Stewart nodded yes. The question put to him late Saturday night in the din of a breathless Bryant-Denny Stadium was whether Texas A&M’s freshman receiver experienced holding or pass interference on the final play of the game against No. 1 Alabama.
The pass thrown by Stewart’s quarterback, Haynes King, as time ran out had zipped so high and wide that there wasn’t much to discuss about the play in the immediate aftermath as the Crimson Tide survived 24-20 over the Aggies.
But as Stewart scraped himself up off the ground and replay showed Bama cornerback Terrion Arnold hitting the receiver early — there were no flags — a reality settled in: The Aggies came this close to upset the Tide for the second year in a row.
“We were getting ready to celebrate,” said Texas A&M defensive lineman Fadil Diggs, who had already popped the cork in his mind.
Jimbo Fisher tried to downplay the significance of an inspiring four-point loss, but isn’t that the takeaway for Aggies everywhere in this up-and-down season?
“I don’t believe in moral victories,” said Texas A&M’s coach, “but you show the growth in what you can be. We went toe to toe. Our kids are tough. They have heart. … Their heart, their desire, their guts and their ability. You can say ‘toughness,’ but we have ability.”
Stewart, drenched in sweat, felt the possibility right up until the end.
“We gave it our all,” said Stewart, smiling weirdly. “We fought.”
There was no question about that as the Aggies boiled down what was supposed to be a blowout to an incredible breath-holding moment. A backup quarterback (King) operating behind a shaky offensive line had somehow driven the Aggies 69 yards to the Tide 2 in the final 1:50 of the game.
That’s where King’s pass with 3 seconds left floated incomplete. Stewart raised his hand, palm up, to an official as if to ask, “Where’s the flag?” Shortly thereafter, two coaches who once wanted to bury the hatchet — in each other — shook hands at midfield without incident.
You can say there’s no such thing as moral victories. But for a coach making $9.5 million who dropped to 3-3 in the fifth year of his chase for a national championship, it was something darn close.
“It does show you what we’re capable of,” Fisher admitted.
And that means pretty much everything at Texas A&M right now. The result will keep the heat off until at least two weeks from now following a bye when TAMU travels to South Carolina. No mega-booster is prepared to write an $85 million check to change coaches — that’s Fisher’s buyout after this season — but it’s worth noting (again) that Fisher hasn’t exactly delivered yet.
Hope always sells. And if nothing else, Aggies everywhere should have come away hopeful after Saturday night.
Now, for two years in a row, Texas A&M has put forward next-level efforts against the behemoth that is Alabama. The Aggies sprung the upset last year with a backup quarterback then as well. They stayed in Saturday’s contest with a defense that had been embarrassed last week by Mississippi State.
Last spring’s feud between Fisher and Alabama’s Nick Saban was expected to be the focus of this game. Instead, it was somewhere around the No. 3 storyline going in after Bryce Young’s injury and the perceived hot seat Fisher has been sitting on.
But with money professionalizing the sport more and more by the day, Saturday night reminded us why we love it so much. The game is still the thing, and the Aggies almost stole this damn game.
They weren’t supposed to, of course. This was supposed to be a gap year for Fisher with that top-ranked 2022 recruiting class beginning to kick in next year. But a home loss to Appalachian State and the strafing by Mike Leach took care of any patience that was built up.
All of it meant Alabama was a 24-point favorite against the wounded Aggies even with Tdie’s own backup quarterback (Jalen Milroe) playing in place of Young.
There will be a narrative emanating from these parts this week that you will have to ignore. The local spin will ask you to disregard those four turnovers by No. 1 Alabama playing at home against a prohibitive underdog. It will ask you to remember the reigning Heisman Trophy winner did not play.
If not for those minor details, well, the Tide would have rolled against the Aggies. That’s what they will say. And they will be wrong. Somebody had to cause those turnovers. Texas A&M was missing its starting quarterback, too.
“We weren’t afraid,” Diggs said. “We didn’t come into the game thinking we weren’t going to get beat badly.”
There was significant subtext to the result. Saturday was more about survival for the Tide — even with a defensive front that posted three sacks, six tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hurries. Will Anderson Jr. himself was as effective as he has looked all season with eight of those hurries.
But Texas A&M played like it had nothing to lose. Alabama played at times like it was hoping to get through the night with a backup quarterback before revving up for Tennessee.
A certain Johnny Manziel downplayed none of it.
Perhaps it was more proof that there are no truly great teams this season. Heading to Knoxville, Tennessee, it has become obvious Alabama probably can’t win next week at Neyland Stadium without Young.
Get ready, then, for another week fraught with speculation about Young’s status coming back from a sprained AC joint. Saban kept fans, the media and the Aggies guessing right up until kickoff. Young was announced as the starter over the public address system to the delight of the 100,000 in attendance shortly before the game. But Milroe took almost the entire warm-up, and it wasn’t until he trotted out for the first series that it was official: Young was sidelined.
Not that the Aggies were deceived. The coaching staff had a good idea he wasn’t going to play. That kind of evened things out with Texas A&M starter Max Johnson out with a broken hand.
“We didn’t have [star wide receiver] Ainias Smith,” Fisher reminded. “We didn’t have our left tackle; we didn’t have our left guard [due to injuries]. We’ve been shorthanded all year, too. We don’t look for [excuses]. He won’t either. I know Nick.”
Nothing against Milroe, a redshirt freshman, but four turnovers while at the controls are four turnovers. Milroe committed three of them. Alabama came into the game having lost one fumble all season. Milroe eclipsed that mark himself with two in the span of seven first-half snaps. Both resulted in eventual touchdowns for Texas A&M. A Milroe interception late in the first half deep in Alabama territory was offset by a King interception shortly thereafter.
The fourth Alabama turnover by running back Jase McClellan, also a fumble, allowed the Aggies to drive for a field goal that cut the Alabama lead to seven going into the fourth quarter. The four turnovers broke a streak of 84 straight games with two or fewer giveaways by Alabama. The last time there were more was an upset loss to Ole Miss in 2015.
As the fourth quarter progressed, this game had that feeling, too. Saban said Young was itching to get onto the field.
After kicker Will Reichard missed two field goals in a game for only the second time in his career, there was uneasiness. Starting at their 29, King dunked and dunked. Stewart caught a 23-yarder that got the ball into Bama territory. Alabama committed a pass interference penalty that negated an interception in the end zone. That put the ball at the Bama 2 with 3 seconds left.
“The read was perfect,” Fisher said of the final play, unaware Johnny Football was stewing somewhere.
Perhaps Stewart wasn’t quite in the end zone when King’s pass sailed over his head, but a penalty would have given the Aggies another play, another chance. Didn’t they earn that?
“I just feel like we don’t need to keep our heads down at all,” Diggs said. “I believe we played a heck of a team. That’s the No. 1 team in the country.”
Based on the small snapshot of Saturday night, the Aggies may be closer than they think.