- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It seemed like nothing went right.
When Texas A&M went into Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 6, 2012, to take on Ole Miss, it was a nightmarish beginning. The Aggies couldn't hold on to the football, turning it over six times. Quarterback Johnny Manziel, who dazzled onlookers in the first four games, looked human.
With the Aggies down by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter and deep in their own territory, Manziel was sacked at the 1, putting the offense's back against the wall. One of the SEC's newest teams appeared to be failing in its first road test.
Then one Mike Evans catch changed it all.
An improbable, leaping, 32-yard grab over a defender on third-and-19 with just under seven minutes remaining kick-started a burst in which the Aggies scored 13 unanswered points and escaped Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with a 30-27 victory.
The rest is history. The Aggies went 11-2, finished tied for second in the SEC West and earned a berth in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, smashing preseason expectations by outsiders. Without the improbable comeback in Oxford, who knows what might have happened?
"I don't want to venture to the idea of us losing the game and how the season would have been, but that was an important game in our season," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We needed a game where everything went wrong, but we still won the game, to show us how good we are."
Winning on the road in the SEC is rarely an easy thing to do and winning in Oxford was no exception. And thanks to a quirk in the conference schedule, No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the scene on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) to see if they can repeat that feat against the Rebels (3-2, 1-2), and perhaps with less of a struggle.
"Oxford is a very tough place to play," senior running back Ben Malena said. "I can't remember one time when that crowd wasn't electrifying. They had a lot of momentum and one thing that we have to do is go over there and play our game. We understand that it's a hostile environment, we understand that their crowd is going to be in the game and that they feed off that energy that the crowd gives them."
Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin acknowledged that the victory played a pivotal role in the later success in the 2012 season.
"You can point back to that and say that it was a pretty big deal," Sumlin said. " At the time, people said, 'Oh, you beat a team that hasn't won very much,' but that team ended up being a thorn in everybody's side. Full of talent, a tough team to beat. I understand that and you make steps as a program.
"There are things you point back to that are steps in your growth, and certainly us going on the road and winning our first SEC game last year on the road was a big deal for this program and a step in the right direction. It was a lot of emotion after the game and rightfully so, and there's no doubt it helped us gain confidence as the season went on at a time when we needed it."
Several players contributed to the comeback effort. The defense made a critical fourth-down stop in Ole Miss territory. Ryan Swope caught the game-winning touchdown pass. Toney Hurd Jr. intercepted Bo Wallace in the final minutes to stop the Rebels' final offensive drive and seal the win.
Nobody knows what would have happened had the Aggies not completed the victory, but you can make some educated guesses. Having three losses instead of two might have affected their postseason destination. It would have made it that much tougher for Manziel to win the Heisman Trophy, despite all his dazzling performances, though it was the Alabama win that really cinched that for him.
The confidence gained from such a victory perhaps played a role in the Aggies' success later in the season. That's something they've carried over to this season, showing that fight in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama when the Aggies were down by 21 points but still continued to fight to make it a close game.
"It showed what type of resiliency we had as a team," Malena said of the Ole Miss win. "Everything is not always going to go as planned. Everything is not going to go Xs and Os like the coaches draw it up. Bad things do happen. Championship teams know how to handle adversity well and I think that was a really good game of us handling adversity and pulling it out."
618dSam Khan Jr.
934dSam Khan Jr.