After clearing '5–0 hill' vs. Tennessee, Texas A&M turns its eyes toward a championship; Punt, Pass & Pork
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Trevor Knight tried not to smile. Conventional football wisdom dictates that a team captain walking from the sideline for an overtime coin toss should keep his visage grim to intimidate the captains from the other team. Still, Knight couldn't help it. His grin seemed to stretch from end zone to end zone as he approached Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs early Saturday evening.
Knight reached out to Dobbs for a handshake. "There's nothing better than this," Knight recalled telling Dobbs at midfield. "This is how it's supposed to be."
Who wouldn't smile in that moment? Football nirvana is the first cool breeze of autumn blowing in as the sun sets. It's 105,000 people at Kyle Field and millions more at home living and dying with each twist and turn. It's Rocky Top blasting out of the south end zone and Yell Leaders along the east sideline commanding the 12th Man to scream Beat the hell out of Tennessee. That moment, with the Volunteers and the Aggies tied at 35, is exactly why we love this sport.
Tennessee should have won the game. The Volunteers turned the ball over seven times, capped by safety Armani Watts's interception of Dobbs in the second overtime to seal Texas A&M's 45–38 win. On the flip side, the Volunteers shouldn't have even been in the game after the first six turnovers. If Tennessee cornerback Malik Foreman doesn't chase down Aggies tailback Trayveon Williams with 1:49 remaining and poke out the ball to turn a sure touchdown into a touchback and Tennessee ball, there is no magic moment at midfield. There is only hand-wringing about how the Vols let one slip and celebration of Texas A&M's unlocking the ability to put away a game on the ground. Tennessee didn't perform another miracle, but the banged-up Vols showed guts that will serve them well the rest of the way. The Aggies didn't win this one clean, but after two seasons of starting 5–0 and falling apart, reaching 6–0 felt especially sweet.
BAUMGAERNTER: Eight biggest things we learned in Week 6
"We finally got over the hump," Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett said. "The little 5–0 hill that we've been facing every year." With a furious fourth-quarter comeback led by Dobbs and Alvin Kamara (127 rushing yards, two rushing TDs; 161 receiving yards, one receiving TD), Tennessee turned the hill into a mountain.
Both teams play top-ranked Alabama next—Tennessee on Saturday and the Aggies on Oct. 22—so both needed this win. From a divisional competitiveness standpoint, the Aggies probably needed it more. Tennessee could conceivably lose to the Crimson Tide and win the SEC East. The Vols probably would just need Florida to lose another conference game. With games against Arkansas and Georgia remaining and the SEC determined to make up the LSU-Florida game that was postponed last week because of Hurricane Matthew, that's likely going to happen. With the crimson juggernaut from Tuscaloosa playing in its division, Texas A&M had no such wiggle room.
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A look at the schedule ahead (the Crimson Tide, Ole Miss, LSU) explains why Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin refused to attach any monumental importance to Saturday's win even though it was one of the biggest of his tenure. "Whether we lost or won, the season wasn't over. Even if we win, people will be talking about the slide coming," Sumlin said. "That's not who we are. We pay attention to what we are doing and not the narrative that everyone else is saying. This team goes about its business, not interested in talking about it, or drama. Just interested in winning games."
Garrett, who missed Texas A&M's win at South Carolina on Oct. 1 with an ankle injury, had only planned to play a limited role against the Vols. That plan changed Saturday as Garrett played most of the defensive snaps in the game's final moments and finished with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. "He was just going to play on third downs tonight, but if you looked up in overtime, I don't think he came off," Sumlin said. "I said, 'Are you alright?' And he said, 'Coach I'm playing.' I think he played the whole overtime, first and second periods. Even in the Arkansas game, when he got hurt, he was back out there in the end. Here's a guy with a bright future and with a lot at stake. That tells you where he is as a person."
The game also proved again that Knight made the correct choice when he decided to leave Oklahoma as a graduate transfer rather than sit his final season behind Baker Mayfield. Knight threw an interception on his first pass attempt as he was crushed by Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, and he didn't play a perfect game after that. His 17 incompletions on 34 attempts will attest to that. But Knight made the plays he had to, including a 62-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and a one-yard touchdown in the second overtime that wound up being the game-winner. Of course, Knight said he screwed up on the final touchdown, too.
"That was a really bad read, and I just made a play on it. We were running the zone read, and the end stayed flatfooted," Knight said. "I should have handed that ball off, and he probably would have walked into the end zone. But I pulled it, and once that happens you've just got to make a decision. You've just got to be an athlete. Luckily, I was able to get in."
A few hours after Mayfield led the two-loss Sooners to a win in the Red River Rivalry three hours north, Knight led the undefeated Aggies to a win. On Saturday, Knight said his move wasn't about proving he could be an effective starting quarterback at a major program. He felt he had something to offer, and Texas A&M—following the departure of 2015 starters Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray—needed a quarterback. "I didn't ever want to prove that," Knight said. "I knew that. That's the reason I left in the first place. I'd played a bunch of football before. I knew I was capable of playing. I'd been playing at a high level. So when I got here, my mindset was never 'prove anybody wrong.' It was 'Let's get this team ready for the 2016 season.'"
They were indeed ready, and now Texas A&M will get a week off before a stretch run that will determine just how much the Aggies have improved. Two overtimes in one of the most entertaining games ever played at Kyle Field got them off the 5–0 plateau. Now it's time to see if they can chase a championship.
A random ranking
My only rules for this week? No sports and no politics. Reader Sam came through with an excellent topic.
Away we go…
1. Road House
4. From Dusk Till Dawn
(You're crazy if you think I'm including a clip of this on a family website.)
Projected College Football Playoff field
1. Ohio State
Indiana has been tricky for the Buckeyes in recent years, and that continued to be the case Saturday even in a 38–17 Ohio State win. Urban Meyer would rather not run J.T. Barrett 26 times in a game, but he will if the passing game isn't working. We'll learn a lot more about the Buckeyes' offense on Saturday when they face Wisconsin in Madison.
The Crimson Tide rolled to a 49–30 win against Arkansas on Saturday, and it seems true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is improving with each passing week. Hurts averaged 14.9 yards a pass attempt against the Razorbacks, and the better he gets, the tougher it is to imagine Alabama losing in SEC play. The Tide will face their toughest stretch these next two weeks with Tennessee in Knoxville and then a visit from a Texas A&M team coming off a bye week. If they get through that unscathed, there may be no one in the SEC capable of beating them.
The Tigers crushed Boston College on Friday, and only NC State stands between them and a bye week to prepare for a trip to Florida State. The Wolfpack beat Notre Dame in a deluge Saturday, but they'll have to be even better to keep Deshaun Watson from raining touchdown passes on them.
The Huskies snapped a 12-year losing streak in a 70–21 win against Oregon, which is barely even attempting to play defense at this point. Now they get a week off to prepare for an Oregon State team that they should also blow out. Given Washington's success and Washington State's 42–16 win at Stanford, it's quite possible the Pac-12 North may come down to the Apple Cup.
Big Ugly of the Week
He looks like he was drawn by Marvel Comics, so I'm not sure Texas A&M's Garrett counts as a big ugly. But he does play on the line, and after gutting out a game against Tennessee on a bum ankle, Garrett—who was one of several Aggies who visited Haiti on a mission trip in May—offered a dose of perspective.
1. Hurricane Matthew affected several games this weekend, but the one that got the most attention was the one that ultimately didn't get played. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wants LSU-Florida made up, and if it affects either divisional race, you can bet it will be.
2. In another Matthew-affected game Georgia beat South Carolina 28–14 on Sunday in Columbia. Meanwhile, Charlotte faced Florida Atlantic in a game that came down to the final play. The Owls thought they'd won, but after a replay review, Charlotte wound up walking away with its first Conference USA win.
3. There will be be no Group of Five team in the playoff this season. Houston's loss at Navy will make it virtually impossible for any of the Group of Five teams to crack the playoff. Houston's win against Oklahoma could have combined with a win against Louisville in November and an undefeated season in the American Athletic Conference to make a strong case for inclusion, but it's tougher to imagine the committee including Boise State or Western Michigan even if those teams remain undefeated.
It will be intriguing now to watch how the committee treats this trio with respect to the Group of Five's spot in the big-money bowls—especially if Houston doesn't lose again. If Houston does lose again, which is a distinct possibility with Louisville still on the schedule, we could see quite a debate between Boise State and Western Michigan.
4. The Midshipmen earned a four-day weekend for their entire school by beating Houston.
Superintendent Carter just announced that there will be no school on Tuesday in honor of the win. Monday was already closed for Columbus Day— Scott Strasemeier (@ScottStras) October 8, 2016
Given the look of this celebration, they might need an extra day.
5. Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Ann Arbor offered a deal to give diners a percentage off equal to the margin of victory should Michigan beat Rutgers. The proprietors wisely capped the deal at 50%, otherwise the Wolverines' 78–0 win would have resulted in Ruth's Chris steaks at Applebee's prices.
And if you don't already have a reservation, too bad. The place is booked solid.
6. This is no way to thank your teammate for his 99-yard touchdown return.
7. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has a theory why his team's fortunes suddenly turned in its 36–23 win against Arizona.
8. The Arkansas fan who got arrested Saturday on charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct after arguing with police and screaming obscenities at Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema—who had committed the offense of losing to the nation's top-ranked team—is a professor at the school.
9. This was the scene at halftime of Washington's 70–21 beatdown of Oregon at Autzen Stadium on Saturday. In three Pac-12 losses this year, the Ducks' defense has allowed 6.7 yards a carry.
10. The mood was much lighter up the road in Corvallis, where Oregon State's 47–44 overtime win over Cal snapped a 12-game Pac-12 losing streak.
What's eating Andy?
I take issue with the characterization by ESPN's College GameDay gang of the environment around the Texas athletic department as a "cesspool." No cesspool could produce that many great barbecue and taco restaurants. (Although it may be true that a booster power vacuum and huge bureaucracy within the university administration make Texas a less attractive job than it appears on the surface.)
What's Andy eating?
Every college town needs a place like Theo's. Sure, most businesses should cater to the 18- to 22-year-olds that drive each city's economy. But the grownups who keep the town running also should have a place to kick back and relax without worrying about a 50-cent pitcher of Natural Light getting spilled on their heads.
That's the role Theo's* plays in Fayetteville, Ark. It's a grown-up lounge that serves grown-up food and grown-up cocktails to a crowd that would rather sip an Old Fashioned than chug a can of PBR. And the Old Fashioneds, particularly the ones mixed by bartender Ryan, are spectacular.
*It also should be noted that it was on a Theo's menu that Bret Bielema originally drew Tretola left, a play that allowed an offensive lineman to throw a touchdown pass to a long snapper.
But those Old Fashioneds aren't the best thing on (or off) the menu at Theo's. The Wal-Mart—a modified White Russian made with Bailey's, Tito's Vodka and Diet Coke that isn't on the menu—is one highlight, but it isn't the star. That's the sous-vide double cut pork chop topped with bacon marmalade and bourbon sauce and served atop a bed of kale and cheddar grits.
I hadn't had anything made using the sous-vide style of cooking before this, so I was intrigued. I'd read a few stories about chefs who swore by this method. Some claimed that it produced more flavorful and tender meat than a grill or a smoker.
The concept is simple, but the execution requires some special equipment. The food is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and then cooked in a water bath heated to a very precise temperature by an immersion circulator. While a grill may heat the outside of the pork chop to 145 degrees and leave the inside at 130, setting the immersion circulator at 132 degrees will yield a pork chop that is 132 degrees on the outside, 132 degrees in the middle and 132 degrees in between.
This takes time, which is why Theo's will run out of pork chops on busy nights. But it also produces meat so juicy that it sprays out with each plunge of the knife. This was the best pork chop I'd ever eaten, and it tasted even better paired with the cider vinegar and bacon enhanced brussels sprouts. That I ate all this in a college-town bar where I could hear myself talk and wash it down with a properly made cocktail made it even better.
If I'd wanted to chug a PBR for dessert, I could have walked to any of a dozen places that would have obliged. But on this night, I was happy to enjoy a quiet interrupted only by the forks hitting the meat and the ice clinking in my Old Fashioned glass.