Texas A&M’s ugly 24-17 victory over Ole Miss on Saturday could turn out to be the season’s turning point with a chance for even greater significance.
With the victory, A&M (4-3) put itself in great position to become bowl-eligible and gain momentum for the first time this season. A&M hasn’t been able to string together back-to-back victories in part because it played three Top 10 teams, a grueling schedule that now becomes easier. The Aggies play Mississippi State, Texas-San Antonio and South Carolina in the next four weeks, all at Kyle Field, along with a bye between the last two games. The schedule, which has worked against A&M, now gives it a chance to build a four-game winning streak. That would give the Aggies confidence heading into back-to-back road games at 10th-ranked Georgia and second-ranked LSU.
The Aggies have a realistic chance of winning at least eight games because of the Ole Miss victory. A loss would have been costly. A&M hadn’t lost four of its first seven games since joining the Southeastern Conference. A&M also won for only the fourth time in the last 11 meetings against the Mississippi schools which is much better than getting that eighth loss. Most of all, A&M avoided the negativity accompanying any loss, though it continued to do things that typically result in a loss, which was the case against Clemson, Auburn and Alabama.
A&M was able to overcome its mistakes against Ole Miss by making the Rebels pay for their errors. The biggest play was the 62-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by linebacker Buddy Johnson to give A&M a 17-14 lead. Ole Miss was in position to possibly take a 21-10 lead when blitzing cornerback Elijah Blades and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike corralled Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee who made a true freshman mistake by trying to salvage a bad play, only making it worse.
It wasn’t just that play. Ole Miss, to its credit, regrouped and put together a 10-play, 57-yard drive before the Aggie defense stiffened and forced a field-goal attempt that was blocked by Madubuike.
A&M’s offense eventually put the game away with a 22-yard touchdown by Isaiah Spiller, but not before Seth Small missed a 28-yard field goal.
The ugliness never went away for the Aggies, but neither did the victory as they played hard and persevered.
A&M didn’t play well, but it was a much-needed victory for a young team. A&M has five scholarship seniors and only two of them played. A&M is a junior-oriented team, but its 13 freshmen and 12 sophomores earned their first SEC West road victory, doing many good things.
Many of the unsung underclassmen had their best games. Freshman defensive back Brian Williams got his first start. Sophomore defensive back Devin Morris, who had seen limited action in four games, had two tackles, one for an 8-yard loss. True freshman linebacker Andre White Jr. had two tackles, including an 11-yard sack.
The victory will make all those young players better, not only for this season, but next season as well.
A&M as a team made its greatest improvement in special teams. A week after giving up 311 return yards in a 47-28 loss to Alabama the Aggies had a 105-22 edge . The Aggies also had a whopping 17-yard advantage over Ole Miss in net punting. Average field position was a wash with A&M starting at its own 29 and Ole Miss its 26.
Johnson’s fumble return was the biggest play, but All-American punter Braden Mann put a punt out at the 1 that played a huge part in A&M being able to put the game away.
It was those type of little plays that also had been hurting A&M in its losses and even hurting it in victories. Saturday it found a way to make more plays than its opponent, a good sign for the future.