One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
The DNA of the Aggies' opener
By Emily Bevan,
5:18PM, Wed. Sep. 12, 2012
In the week preceding the Aggies' SEC debut against the University of Florida, Texas A&M's TAMU Times ran four separate articles extolling the similarities between the two schools.
In an apparent attempt to justify A&M's position in the conference (just look how much we have in common!), the articles' topics ranged from joint research to U.S. News & World Report rankings.
But as game day approached, I had to sniff at the two schools' likeness; you can't clone Texas A&M. The traditions, history, and students there make Aggieland an intensely singular place. And even if Florida and Texas A&M do share some common DNA, on the football field the differences between teams and the schools they represent matter most.
Early in Saturday's game, those differences stood in stark contrast. Led at QB by confident redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel, the Aggie offense set an up-tempo rhythm that punched the Gator defense right in the chomps. In a play highlighting Manziel's swagger and new coach Kevin Sumlin's fresh attitude, the Aggies went for it on fourth-and-one from the Gator 31. Manziel flashed play action before connecting with TE Nehemiah Hicks for a first down. While an illegal forward pass forced Texas A&M to settle for a field goal to end the drive, it felt like the Aggies had mutated from their Big 12 ancestors and were setting themselves apart in the SEC already.
Florida, on the other hand, brought a methodic approach based on solid run defense and offensive consistency. The Gators' patience paid off initially, and Florida scored their only TD of the half on the ensuing drive. Rumbles from running back Mike Gillislee kept the ball moving against an Aggie defense transitioning to a 4-3 set, and Gillislee scored the first touchdown of the game.
The rest of the half went to Texas A&M. Despite some early softness on D, the Aggies fought back on offense, controlling the game's tempo. Christine Michael began to break down Florida's defensive line. Thomas Johnson made some impressive grabs. Sophomore running back Ben Malena got in the mix. Manziel capped off the drive with an 11-yard scramble to the end zone for the first touchdown of his Aggie career, and Kyle Field erupted.
The Aggie defense kept up the momentum. Damontre Moore and Steven Jenkins logged three sacks between them in the following series, and the Gators failed to make midfield before sending in the punting team.
That's when the fun really started. For the next 10 minutes, the Aggie offense looked unstoppable. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury mixed in young players that could be lethal as they develop in the SEC. Freshman running back Trey Williams opened the drive with a 10-yard run, then three plays later took a screen pass from Manziel and shimmied across midfield. Kenric McNeal took the end-around from Manziel and passed to Mike Evans for 27 yards. Christine Michael logged his first touchdown of the season, and kicker Taylor Bertolet punched the extra point to make it 17-7. After a 51-yard field goal from Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis, the Aggies took a 17-10 lead into halftime.
It was all so much fun and happened so fast, and that speed was the difference between Texas A&M and Florida in the first half.
Discussion preceding the Aggies' opener suggested similarities between A&M and Florida: the schools share faculty, have worked together to develop new road-safety measures, and lead research in space exploration, alternative energy, and veterinary medicine. But Florida and Texas A&M aren't clones. A&M should know that, because the school leads the field of cloning science, producing cloned cattle, pigs, a goat, a deer, a horse, and a cat named "Cc."
Unfortunately, Aggie football did its own bit of cloning in Saturday's second half: they reproduced a sample of their 2011 season.
Florida set the game's pace in the second half, and the effect was (sorry, Ags) like watching geneticists at work. Whether intentional or not, the Gators suffered a lot of clock-stopping cramps for a team well-acclimatized to heat and humidity. When not rolling on the turf, the Florida defense definitely stepped up in the second half, too. Tough play by Lerentee McCray and Jonathon Bostic helped stall the Aggie offense.
But Aggie penalties and an infertile second-half offense ultimately determined the game's anticlimactic result. Texas A&M racked up a touchdown's-worth of penalty yardage: nine whistles, 78 yards in the wrong direction. And the Aggie O that put up big numbers in the first half settled for six punts in the second.
For all the Aggies' preseason experimentation, play Saturday yielded the same disappointing results. And while it's tough to take, maybe it's not all bad. A&M started play in the SEC with a new coach, a new offense, a new defense, a young team, and a bold hypothesis: a team that floundered in the Big 12's genetic mixed-bag could benefit from the SEC's brand of natural selection. And to my scientific eye, the Aggies suffered no setback for it. I won't be surprised at any breakthroughs in the season ahead.