Sitting at 4-3 and 2-2 in the SEC entering Week 9, Texas A&M and head coach Jimbo Fisher were focused entirely on the task at hand: making a statement at home against the struggling South Carolina Gamecocks.
While Fisher’s future at the helm remains one of the most significant talking points in college football, the only solution to cooling off his proverbial “Hot Seat” is to either win out or at least win four out of the Aggies’ final five games. Game on?
Coming out of the bye week, the return of linebacker Edgerrin Cooper, defensive tackle Walter Nolen, and safety Bryce Anderson immediately bolstered the Aggies defense, but that’s about it, especially compared to the recent struggles on offense that have essentially destroyed Texas A&M’s chances of gaining any team cohesiveness.
Returning to a packed Kyle Field for the 11:00 a.m. kickoff against the Gamecocks, the Aggies would start the game on offense, and if you were looking for any immediate improvements after the bye, I’m sorry.
While Texas A&M’s offensive line has been a lost cause for most of the year, the utter collapse witnessed in consecutive losses to Alabama and Tennessee continued into Saturday, as quarterback Max Johnson (20/30, 249 yards, 1 TD) endured three sacks against one of the worst pass rushes in the SEC. At the same time, the veteran southpaw continued to hold the ball much too long in the process.
After several stalled drives, the Aggie’s stout defense had its first moment of weakness, allowing Gamecocks signal caller Spencer Rattler to pass his way down the field, leading to a 1-yard TD run from RB Dakereon Joyner. Finally gaining some offensive momentum, first-year OC Bobby Petrino opened up the playbook, focusing on the run game, specifically freshman RB Reuben Owens.
After Johnson connected with WR Evan Stewart on a 15-yard strike and hit TE Max Wright on a short gain, Owens weaved his way through defenders for a 14-year score to even things up at 7-7 with nine minutes remaining in the first half. While the Aggies’ defense continued to pressure Rattler to provide offense-added cushion, Max Johnson took a beating in the pocket.
However, Texas A&M’s short-yardage game starkly improved in critical moments late in the first half, as the Aggies took a 14-7 lead after an efficient 12-play drive that included four 3rd-down conversions and on 4th-down conversion (3-3 on the day), capped off by a 2-yard touchdown from sophomore RB Amari Daniels.
More offense before the half? After the Aggie’s tremendous pass rush notched its fourth sack on the day, Fisher, well-known for bleeding the clock before most halves while holding a slight lead, finally chose to trust his offense after taking a timeout with 1:12 remaining, leading to a one-play, 42-yard touchdown to do-it-all WR Ainias Smith, who would juke his way into the end zone to score his first receiving touchdown on the season and give the Aggies a solid 21-7 lead at the half—one heck of a second-quarter performance.
South Carolina opened the half desperate to do something on offense, and after an oddly lucky sequence of events in the passing game, kicker Mitch Jeter’s 49-yard FG cut into the lead at 21-10. With a semi-comfortable lead, Fisher and Petrino once again focused on the running game while loading the protection with 12-personnel looks. After two failed attempts to score a touchdown, Texas A&M would respond after a long 13-play drive ending with a 26-yard Randy Bond FG.
Despite the Aggie’s pass rush causing quarterback Spencer Rattler issues throughout the day, the senior would engineer an impressive 7-play touchdown drive on a 7-yard strike to WR Joshua Simon, bringing the Gamecocks within a score at the start of the fourth quarter. Still throwing confidently, Max Johnson continued to hit his targets through the air while the Aggies’ run game capitalized on the Gamecock’s poor tacking but could only muster a second consecutive Randy Bond FG after another failed red zone trip.
After multiple defensive stops, Bond hit a career-tying 52-yard FG with 7:39 remaining; Texas A&M’s 30-17 lead looked more and more decisive after every South Carolina offensive possession failed to get past midfield due to impressive play by the Aggie secondary in man coverage. Bond’s first miss on the day provided the Gamecocks with good field position to make something happen, but nevertheless, a fumble recovered by Aggie DT McKinnley Jackson would seal the game for the Maroon & White.
It wasn’t pretty offensively (outside of Ainias Smith’s 42-yard TD), as A&M has failed to score a second half touchdown in its last four games, but Jimbo Fisher and his resilient team, yes, found the inches and earned a much, much-needed victory to end their SEC losing streak and get back on track in their quest to finish strong in 2023.