Austin to College Station
A week on from a fantastic game day experience watching Texas lose a heartbreaker to Alabama in Austin, Amy and I were ready to make the next college football pilgrimage, a road trip to Aggieland to see Texas A&M take on Miami in College Station.
We'd spent a week in between games in Dallas, stopping off at AT&T Stadium to tour the most impressive sports arena I've ever seen, and paid our respects to Big 12 champions Baylor University with a stop off at McLane Stadium in Waco (via the quirky Dr Pepper Museum) and obligatory visit to the stadium shop. En route, we encountered cowboy country in Abilene at the West Texas State Fair and Rodeo and took in the Stockyards at Fort Worth.
The big city areas of Texas we'd seen in Austin, Dallas and Houston faded into the distance as we travelled up Highway 6. We really got a sense that we were headed to the heart of the state as we approached College Station. Texas A&M sits within a two-hour drive of 26 million of the state's 28 million residents, according to the university's website. It's huge, tree-lined campus is home to 69,000 students. Traditionally founded as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in 1876, students initially were required to participate in military training. That strong military connection and blue-collar roots were evident and it felt like the layers of Texas were peeling away to it's core the closer we got to College Station.
On an impressive campus boasting numerous buildings of note, the jewel in the crown is Kyle Field. Officially seating 102,733, it is the largest stadium in Texas and also in the SEC.
The Build Up
It was a hot, humid evening in College Station. The air was filled with the musty scent of beer, sweat and the heavy weight of expectation. Texas A&M landed the nation's top recruiting class this year, which included eight five-star recruits. My view, before the season, was that while they have the roster to make a serious run at the championship in a couple of years, Coach Jimbo Fisher's team lack the depth to get into the Playoff.
A humbling home defeat to FCS team Appalachian State the previous weekend had dropped Texas A&M from No.6 to No.24 in the rankings and put Jimbo Fisher under severe pressure ahead of this key match up with No.13 Miami.
The noise was deafening as kickoff approached. 107,245 fans had crammed into Kyle Field, the third largest crowd in Aggies' history. The fabled 12th Man, the stand seating, amongst others, the raucous student section, was in full voice. The Aggie War Hymn boomed out from the stands as the fans all linked arms and swayed from side to side, entire rows moving in different directions. It was a fantastic tradition to take part in and I don't exaggerate when I say the whole stand moved! I couldn't take a video as we were wrapped up in the swaying, but here's a clip from Twitter that shows the Aggie War Hymn and swaying in all it's glory:
Towels were waved above heads all around the stadium, two Hercules C-130 planes conducted a flyover and Texas A&M were ready.
Texas A&M 17-9 Miami
The pre-game talk was LSU transfer Max Johnson coming in at quarterback for Haynes King who had underwhelmed in the loss to Appalachian State. Neither team's offense impressed early on as the two teams made an early exchange of field goals. Bright early runs from Aggies' Devon Achane indicated Texas A&M's best opportunity to move the ball would likely come through the hands of their 5'9", 185lb running back.
A right sweep from Achane right sweep set up LJ Johnson Jr to punch it in from the 1-yard line to put the Aggies 10-3 up. This was a quick three-play drive to score after a recovered fumble from Miami's punt return.
Miami were being stifled by Texas A&M's suffocating defense. Junior cornerback Jaylon Jones was particularly impressive in pass coverage. The Aggies' special teams were performing well. Jones' fellow defensive back Bryce Anderson blocked a Miami field goal attempt to loud cheers from Kyle Field.
The first half ended with Miami's sack of Johnson for a five-yard loss. The opening half stats made grim reading for offensive purists. Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke completed only 7 of 16 passes for just 76 yards. Max Johnson made just 6 of 5 passes for 63 yards. Achane, the rare spark in a mechanical A&M offense,ran for 76 yards rushing. and gained a further 17 receiving yards.
The 12th Man
In a January 1922 game, Texas A&M's team was decimated with injuries to the point where only the 11 players on the field remained. Dana X. Bible, the Aggies' coach, remembered that a student, E. King Gill, who had quit the team to focus on basketball was in the stands. Bible waved Gill down from the stands and told him to suit up, which he did using an injured player’s equipment.
When he returned to the sideline, he stood at the ready for the rest of the game in case another player was injured. Texas A&M won 22-14 in a historic upset. Because of Gill’s willingness to answer his team’s call, this tradition is upheld by Aggies to this day, who refuse to sit until the game is over, just in case the team need a 12th man.
Whenever Miami had possession, the 12th man was at its loudest. whipping up
noise to make Hurricanes quarterback Tyler Van Dyke run up to his line to repeat instructions.
A&M took a 17-3 lead early in the third quarter when Johnson found Devon Achane on a 25-yard TD pass. Miami responded with a 71-yard drive that ate up over six minutes of the game clock but decided not to attempt to convert on 4th and goal at the A&M 4, opting instead to kick a short field goal.
Andres Borregales hit a 22-yard field goal for Miami to make it 17-6 with 4:04 left in the 3rd quarter. An Ainias Smith dropped punt under an advancing swarm of Hurricanes gave the Miami a brief glimmer of hope, but he managed to recover his fumble and A&M escaped. A second Borregales field goal with 8:32 left cut the deficit to 17-9 but Miami couldn't capitalise. A vicious tackle on Hurricanes tight end Will Mallory drew a huge "oooh" from the crowd. We could hear the hit from our seat. Mallory landed on his head and, after a worrying pause, got up to cheers from all sides but his game was over, and as one of Miami's leading performers left the field, their threat effectively fizzled out.
The Hurricanes offense was otherwise propped up by its running game. Jaylan Knighton was plugging away, trying to find rare openings in the Aggies' stonewall defensive front. He and Henry Parrish Jr. managed to rush for over 150 yards between them. Van Dyke, touted as a potential first-round pick in next April's NFL Draft, was off form. He completed 21 of 41 passes for 217 yards. The 6'4", 224lb signal caller looked composed at times in the face of the persistent heckling from the 12th Man, but looked like he was trying to force plays, overthrowing passes on several occasions. It will be good experience for him and his potential was clearly visible.
In comparison, A&M quarterback Max Johnson, by comparison, managed the game well. While his overall numbers (1o of 20 passes completed for 140 yards) won't make the headlines, he was smart to release his playmakers Achane and Ainias Smith to make the difference and had some success scrambling when the pocket collapsed, making a couple of 10-yard rushing gains. Texas A&M can score quickly when their offense clicks. Achane's touchdown capped a four-play, 76-yard drive that took just a minute and 58 seconds. Evidently from their early three-play scoring drive, this is an attack that can thrive.
After the emotional highs and lows of the Texas-Alabama game the week before, this was a fascinating experience. Texas A&M is a huge football program with everything set up
to be huge success in the next two or three years. They have invested $100 million in coach Jimbo Fisher to recruit and develop the top high school recruiting class in the country. They have relentless support from the 12th Man and a fervent fan base.
To succeed in the meantime, they will need to rely on more than talented playmakers like Achane and Smith. The Aggies have a solid offensive line and Johnson is a capable quarterback who can manage games, but A&M needs more explosiveness on offense. To reach and compete in national championships you need a Bryce Young or CJ Stroud at quarterback, capable of changing a game, as we saw Young successfully do under pressure at Texas last week.
If you're interested in college football or just enjoy visiting the U.S., I'd thoroughly recommend a trip to Texas. It's quickly become my favourite state. We had a brilliant time being entertained by two fantastic Texan college football teams and their wonderfully passionate fans, also those of Alabama and Miami. Austin and College Station are two of the finest venues for college football, and I can't wait to go back and see some more teams on the bucket list.