Jimbo Fisher doesn't believe in moral victories, but his Aggies seemed to come of age in a hard-fought 28-26 loss to the second-ranked Clemson Tigers on Saturday night at Kyle Field.
Clemson led by more than a touchdown three times but couldn't shake A&M until a relentless rush by defensive end Austin Bryant blew up the Aggies' game-tying two-point conversion attempt with 46 seconds left.
A&M quarterback Kellen Mond was in immediate trouble as he rolled right and Bryant's pressure forced Mond to throw an interception. The Aggies also got called for holding on the play -- the only holding call of the night against A&M's offensive line.
It was one of the few times the Clemson defense frustrated A&M's sophomore quarterback, who used his arm and legs to power the Aggies to 501 yards. Mond was 23-of-40 passing for 430 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also led the team in rushing with 33 yards on 10 carries.
"The moment was not too big for him, and I love it," Fisher said.
A&M's three leading receivers also were sophomores. Kendrick Rogers had seven catches for 120 yards and two scores. Camron Buckley added four catches for 93 yards, and Jhamon Ausbon had three for 61.
"There's a lot of fight in this team, and you can see a lot of good, young players," Fisher said.
Clemson, which has made the College Football Playoffs three straight years and is favored to return with 16 returning starters, was the first big test for the revamped Aggies under Fisher, who battled the Tigers for the last eight seasons at Florida State.
Clemson, up 14-6 in the third quarter, caught a huge break when Mond suffered a cramp after a 23-yard scramble to the Clemson 44-yard line to convert a third down. He was replaced by Nick Starkel, who was sacked and fumbled with Clemson's Justin Foster recovering. The Tigers scored in four plays for a 21-6 lead. Quarterback Kelly Bryant hooked up with Tee Higgins for a 50-yard pass on the first play after the fumble, and Diondre Overton caught an 8-yard touchdown pass.
A&M answered in two plays. Buckley had a 69-yard catch and Rogers scored on a 9-yard grab. The scoring fest continued with the teams swapping touchdowns. Clemson went 75 yards in eight plays. A&M answered in six plays for 75 yards, Quartney Davis catching a 14-yarder to make it 28-20 with 14:07 left in the game.
A&M seemingly fumbled away a chance at an upset with 2:13 seconds left when a fumble by Davis went through the end zone for a touchback. A&M got the ball back by forcing a three-and-out and Clemson helped with a 22-yard punt. The Aggies covered 49 yards in three plays with Rogers making a bobbling 24-yard catch in the end zone, but A&M couldn't get the conversion.
"At the end of the day, it came down to the two-point play, and we got the interception," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Clemson was led by senior Bryant who threw for 205 yards on 12 of 17 with a touchdown. Bryant added 54 yards rushing on 15 carries with a touchdown. Freshman backup Trevor Lawrence was 5 of 9 for 93 yards with a touchdown.
A&M outgained Clemson 501-413, but A&M had the game's only two turnovers.
"It was a heck of a game," Fisher said. "They made one more play than we did. It's not a moral victory."
A&M had more yards in the third quarter (160) than it had in the first half (142) but was outscored 14-10 because of the turnover.
A trio of passes helped Clemson to a 14-3 halftime lead.
Late in the first quarter, Amari Rodgers had a 64-yard reception on third-and-15 to the A&M 16. Three plays later, an 18-yard screen to Travis Etienne on third-and-13 to the 1 set up a touchdown run by Bryant for a 7-3 lead.
The Tigers scored on its next play from scrimmage which was the first play for freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Higgins used his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame to make a leaping catch over 6-2, 202-pound Oliver. He kept his balance, eluding A&M safety Derrick Tucker.
Clemson missed a great opportunity to pad its lead late in the half, but Bryant couldn't handle the snap on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with A&M taking over at the 4 with 1:54 left.
The game opened with A&M wasting a scoring chance.
A&M converted a pair of third downs on its first possession, covering 66 yards in 10 plays, but place-kicker Daniel LaCamera pushed a 26-yard field goal to the right. Thanks to a sack by defensive lineman Justin Madubuike the Aggies got the ball back and LaCamera hit a 40-yarder with 4:28 left in the half.