Aggies come up short on big stage
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- These people are not ready for the Southeastern Conference.
Texas A&M's ghastly collapse against Oklahoma State on Saturday was not greeted with shrieks of outrage from the 87,358 fans in Kyle Field. From field level at the final gun, there was no visible rending of garments or gnashing of teeth -- to the contrary, the Aggies fans politely clapped for their players as they jogged to the locker room. I didn't hear a single call to fire the coach, fire the coordinators, fire the athletic director, yank anyone's scholarship or waterboard the officials.
That lack of murderous intent is not going to get it done in the SEC, Aggies.
Then again, neither is giving up 21 points in the first 11½ minutes of the third quarter. Or surrendering 27 straight points in the second half. Or losing momentum so totally and completely at home, as a top 10 team, in front of the fourth-largest crowd in Kyle Field history.
By all means, give Oklahoma State a ton of credit for its 30-29 triumph here -- that team is as tough as it is talented. And give the orange-clad fans half credit for cheekily chanting "Big 12! Big 12! Big 12!" in the waning seconds -- an ironic declaration of league loyalty when you remember that the Cowboys appeared to have one boot out the door for the Pac-12 just a few days ago.
This was a great victory for T. Boone Pickens University. But it also was a really, really awful loss for Texas A&M.
This was a huge opportunity for the Aggies -- the first time two top-10 teams have played here since 1975, a major TV opportunity, a potential validation game for fourth-year coach Mike Sherman, and an opponent they owed payback to.
Just last year, Oklahoma State rallied from a two-touchdown halftime deficit to stun A&M. The Aggies committed five second-half turnovers in that meltdown.
This was the same storyline unfolding again. Only worse.
This time it was a 17-point halftime lead. This time it was at home. This time it was with a ranking to lose along with the game.
No, gag 'em.
"Very disappointing," Sherman said. "This was a very special game for us. At home, great crowd, we had an opportunity to win and we didn't. As I told our players during the week, 'You don't get opportunities like this very often.'"
Every avalanche starts small. It's a compilation of harmless snowflakes that ultimately builds to a critical, destructive mass. The Aggies' collapse was the same thing -- a compilation of seemingly minor errors, miscues and misfortune that ripped the game from their grasp.
A missed assignment here. An untimely cramp there. A boneheaded personal foul here. A turnover (or two, or three, or four) there. A poor play call here. A failed blitz there.
That all added up with stunning rapidity.
Oklahoma State took the kickoff for the second half down 20-3 and marched 80 yards for a touchdown. Twice it converted third-and-2s into first downs. If the Aggies get off the field on either of those plays, it might have been different. Or if they don't blow a coverage on a short pass that turned into a 28-yard gain.
When A&M got the ball back up 20-10, its first offensive snap of the half was a busted play -- an omen of the misfiring to come. After one first down the Aggies had to punt for just the second time in the game, and a pattern was established: the Cowboys were going to have the ball all quarter.
Oklahoma State cranked up the tempo and clicked off 37 snaps in the third, after 37 snaps in the entire first half. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and his stable of receivers nibbled the A&M secondary to death, one bubble screen at a time.
They scored 21 points in three possessions, then gave away a fourth touchdown when star receiver Justin Blackmon inexplicably fumbled through the end zone while running in untouched. But the Aggies returned the favor when quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw his second interception in three passes, part of a three-turnovers-in-three-possessions A&M meltdown.
Last year against Oklahoma State, Aggies quarterback Jerrod Johnson began the process of losing his job to Tannehill by throwing too many interceptions. Since taking over as the starter, Tannehill had thrown just six picks in 316 passes -- until throwing three in the second half Saturday.
The first came when receiver Kenric McNeal cramped up coming out of a break. Bad luck. The second came while being hit. Bad decision not to throw it away. The third ended the game on a great play by Oklahoma State defensive back James Thomas.
"The last one you can't do much about, he anticipated the throw," Tannehill said. "Stuff happens."
Does it ever. And the more bad stuff happened to the A&M offense, the worse it got for the A&M defense. Coordinator Tim DeRuyter's unit, after a stellar first half, was bewildered and exhausted in the third quarter.
"When we started getting guys cramping up, we had to play reserves and the pace, they weren't ready for," DeRuyter said.
Sherman, meanwhile, all but abandoned his running game. Part of the reason A&M has looked good in September has been the powerful combination of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael, who came into this game averaging a combined 34.5 carries and 174.5 yards. In the first half Saturday they had 87 yards on 14 carries; in the fateful third quarter, when a running game could have kept the Cowboys off the field and given the A&M defense time to rest, Gray and Michael had 10 yards on three carries.
"We did try to run the ball," Sherman insisted, though the evidence disputes that. The Aggies had eight second-half rushes and 26 throws.
At least Sherman didn't have to hear any audible second-guessing from the paying public coming off the field post-debacle. His team isn't ready to compete in the SEC, and his saintly fan base isn't ready either.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.