COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — Oh, of course it got weird. It got so amazingly and blindingly weird, in such a hurry. But then maybe we all should have suspected this from a game that featured Texas A&M and UCLA.
It ended this way: With a 31-24 Aggies win in overtime, with Trevor Knight stomping into the end zone and Josh Rosen throwing two passes that came achingly shy of being touchdowns to prolong the drama, with everyone catching their breath after holding it for far longer than anyone expected.
But it didn’t end before Texas A&M put together precisely the sort of effort it needed to relieve the myriad pressures surrounding it through the off-season…only to nearly give everything up at the end. It didn’t end before Rosen and the Bruins were choked out of the proceedings, battered and mocked by more than 100,000 at Kyle Field, perishing by an abundance of self-inflicted wounds…only to flare up and come back to life late, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie a game that never should have come close to being tied.
"That's what it's all about," Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett said. "When adversity hits, what are you gonna do?"
Here are three thoughts on the madness that came out of nowhere in College Station:
1. Was that the start Kevin Sumlin needed?
Kind of? Maybe? Probably? The new athletic director at Texas A&M, Scott Woodward, has indicated on the record that eight-win seasons are not exactly satisfactory. Of course, eight-win seasons are exactly what Sumlin’s program has produced for two straight years. So a new boss applying very public pressure to succeed at a high level effectively rendered this game a must-get for Sumlin, the Aggies’ fifth-year coach. Never mind the $15 million buyout the school owes within 60 days of his firing. Texas A&M is one of those spots that can find that sort of cash while rummaging through the couch cushions. He needed good vibes, and he needed good vibes immediately, with a power conference team paying a visit. The win was the most important thing, but aesthetics mattered; a victory in some sort of hideously grinding effort wouldn’t have instilled much confidence.
Presumably, everyone left Kyle Field satisfied...barely. The defense was stout, holding UCLA out of the end zone for the first 55-plus minutes and harassing Rosen to the tune of five sacks and more than 20 hurries, according to CBS’s in-game stats. The Aggies run game produced 203 yards and their new quarterback, Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight, threw for a touchdown and ran for two more. That is the kind of team Sumlin needed to showcase to start 2016.
But there was that crash, the horrific unspooling of it all. A 15-point fourth-quarter lead vanished before Knight and one more defensive stand rescued it in overtime. This was a game Texas A&M won and just about lost and then, exasperatingly, won again. There are 11 more games to play. It’s doubtful anyone’s nerves can stand 11 repeats of the drama the Aggies inflicted on themselves and others on Saturday. The program got the win it needed. Was it the kind of win it needed? That may depend on what comes next.
“The real learning (point) was, we can’t have lapses like that,” Sumlin said. “Quality football teams will make you pay. But the good news is we found a way to win the game. That will go a long way with these guys. The demeanor of this team is a little different—I think the response after the game was, we were fortunate to win, but we’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to correct. As our schedule goes, we need to play better and we can play better.”
2. The Josh Rosen Express is one wild ride.
We know about the hot tub and the 65-inch television and the apartment dart games, and we know about the 3.2 GPA, and we know about brutal honesty that is manna for writers. But we didn’t know if Rosen, UCLA’s ascendant sophomore quarterback, would play to the level of Heisman Trophy contender this season. We now know that, on Saturday, he is capable of looking very ordinary for a long time and very extraordinary when his team needs it.
For more than 55 minutes, Rosen’s most notable throws included a first-quarter interception in which he ill-advisedly flung the ball up for grabs while in the grasp of Texas A&M pass rushers, and then there was another near-pick in the end zone in the second quarter. (That was somewhat mitigated by Garrett trying to snap Rosen in half as he threw.) The Bruins had zero answer for an Aggies pass rush that seemed to grow fiercer and fiercer as the game wore on, and the quarterback took a beating as a result. And when he had time, Rosen wasn’t on point—he overthrew a wide-open receiver on what would have been a crucial touchdown throw late in the third quarter. And when he was on point, Rosen suffered from drops, such as the carom off receiver Alex Van Dyke into an interception. It was all-too familiar for UCLA faithful: Lots of ability, lots of mistakes. Moments after that pick, a good portion of the 100,443 in attendance at Kyle Field began a chant directed entirely at the Bruins’ frustrated signal-caller: “Fifty thousand! [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap] Fifty thousand!” To the presumed victors go the opportunities to tweak the guy who earlier in the week said he didn’t hear the difference in crowd noise from 50,000 fans on up.
It was tempting karma, and karma bit back. Rosen set up one UCLA touchdown with a 12-yard run and a 23-yard pass. After a punt, he hit Kenny Walker for a 62-yard touchdown pass and followed it with a completion to tight end Austin Roberts for a two-point conversion that tied the game at 24-24. Just like that, Josh Rosen looked like the quarterback everyone expected he’d be, and he turned that derisive Kyle Field crowd awfully quiet. A throw over the middle, picked off by a leaping Evans with 37 seconds left, was potentially catastrophic, but Texas A&M couldn’t manage to take advantage in regulation. Then two throws on third- and fourth-and-goal in overtime that could have tied it, should have tied it, but didn’t.
“I played a pretty abysmal first half,” Rosen said. “Coach (Jim Mora) is going to try to be coach and say, ‘It wasn’t all you,’ but I missed some incredibly key opportunities. I can’t try and compete to be the best quarterback in the country and throw three picks. It just doesn’t happen like that… Came out in the second half, it was a little too late.
“I wasn’t in the right frame of mind in the first half. It just took too long to get going, and that can’t happen if we want to be the team we want to be. It’s a quarterback-driven sport and you can’t have your quarterback play that bad in the first half and expect to win. It’s just completely unacceptable and it won’t happen again."
Rosen went 26 for 46 on the day for 343 yards, with one touchdown against three interceptions. He may put up arcade numbers for the rest of the year. He may be a Heisman contender before his college days are done. He probably will earn millions of dollars in the NFL and Sept. 3, 2016, eventually will be a faint memory. On Saturday, it seemed clear: He won’t be boring doing any of it.
3. Knight time is the right (enough) time.
The Aggies’ import quarterback had his moments, good and bad. He went 6-for-6 passing on the Aggies’ first touchdown drive. He dove in from the 1-yard line for the second touchdown. He threw an off-balance, back-foot interception in the third quarter and then atoned with a 40-yard heave to Josh Reynolds, creating a 15-point lead late in the third quarter that should have been enough. He couldn’t muster any magic late in regulation when Texas A&M was gifted a chance to win by Rosen. And then he stomped into the end zone on a 1-yard option keeper in overtime, putting his team over the top for good.
"It's a game of split-seconds and inches," Knight said. "We were on the right side today. It's one I'll remember forever."
Knight doesn’t need to be the best quarterback in the country for Texas A&M to make a run at division and conference titles and more. He just needs to be reliably good. On Saturday, he was mostly reliably good. Repeat that 11 more times, and avoid the whole defensive-collapse thing, and Knight will give the program more or less precisely what it needs.