COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Kevin Sumlin was right about at least one thing following Texas A&M’s narrow 21-16 escape of Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday at Kyle Field.
"We need to win," Sumlin said. "It’s been awhile since we won."
It’s true. The entire month of October passed without a win for the Aggies (6-3), once a trendy pick for one the four inaugural College Football Playoff berths after a hot start.
How quickly things have changed and how far this team has fallen.
The images from the end of Saturday’s close win against a sub-.500 team from the Sun Belt Conference were almost the polar opposite of what was seen in Columbia, South Carolina, on Aug. 28 when Texas A&M stunned the nation by wiping the floor with the Gamecocks.
Perhaps most telling words about where the Aggies are came out from Sumlin after Saturday’s game.
"This game was won a week ago in the off week with how we practiced from a physical standpoint and a toughness standpoint," Sumlin said. "To close out the game being able to run the football and take some time off the clock and have our defense make some stops at the end to win the game. From my standpoint, two or three weeks ago, I don’t know if we win this game."
The fact that the Aggies might have once been at a point where they lost to a Group of 5 team that is now 3-5 and ranks 101st or worst nationally in almost every major offensive statistical category, is troubling.
That day was probably Oct. 18 when the Aggies were systematically destroyed 59-0 at Alabama. Sumlin is probably right -- they wouldn’t have beaten Louisiana-Monroe or just about anybody that afternoon. The Aggies that day turned in their worst performance since joining the SEC in 2012, and easily their worst since a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma in 2003, which was two head coaching changes ago.
High-powered offense and opportunistic defense against an SEC opponent on the road, like what was witnessed on Aug. 28 at South Carolina, has been traded for squeaking out a meager offensive output, a defensive unit that bent, but didn’t break on Saturday, and a host of freshmen in key positions on both sides of the ball, including at quarterback.
A team that racked up 680 yards in its opener is a shell of its former self, managing only 243 offensive yards (104 fewer than Louisiana-Monroe posted Saturday) and was running clock, moving the chains late in the fourth quarter in an effort to secure a win.
There was once a time when the clock was mostly irrelevant to the Aggies' offense, except for timing how quickly the team could score. Now it seems the breakneck offensive tempo that the Aggies have been known for in recent years is nonexistent.
Of course, starting a true freshman quarterback for the first time -- Kyle Allen -- contributed to the offensive struggles. Allen, the No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class, is quite talented physically but doesn’t have a full grasp of the offense yet. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital scaled down the Aggies' offense significantly as to not give Allen too much to digest.
They will open the playbook more heading into Saturday’s game at No. 3 Auburn. They have no choice but to do so as Allen makes his second start. But the Aggies are also in this position partially because the quarterback who performed so impressively in the first five games of the season, Kenny Hill, is suspended for two games for a violation of team rules. One of the team’s supposed leaders has now been suspended twice in this calendar year (he was suspended in March during spring practice following an arrest on a public intoxication charge).
Upcoming is a treacherous three-game stretch to close out the regular season -- at Auburn and at home vs. Missouri and LSU. That the Aggies still seem to be trying to find the right answers on each side of the ball more than two-thirds into the season is cause for concern.
The good news is that some of the personnel changes seen on the field Saturday show potential. Two true freshmen -- Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker -- gave the linebacker position an energy jolt with their starts on Saturday. They were active and flashed some of the ability that made them so heavily recruited, combining for 12 tackles and a half-sack on Saturday.
True freshman defensive end Jarrett Johnson, who has seen some time this season, saw quite a bit Saturday and finished with five tackles and a tackle for loss. Safety Armani Watts, who started the season brilliantly but had been mostly missing from the lineup of late, recaptured some of his playmaking magic with an interception.
Offensively, the running game was much more productive than it had been in the previous two games. Taking away sacks and kneel downs at the end of the game, the Aggies averaged 4.6 yards per carry, totaling 168 yards on the ground on 36 attempts.
There are still issues -- pass protection needs to improve (they yielded three sacks on Saturday), receivers will have to be better, and Allen will have to be more productive than the 106 yards and two turnovers that comprised his day on Saturday. The Aggies still have many problems to solve.
If they are going to win any of their last three games, the answers have to come sooner rather than later.