“One heckuva game,” Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin was calling it.
Given the poetic license of an overtime Southeastern Conference football game, the Aggies head coach was picking his adjectives carefully following A&M’s 35-28 escape victory over Arkansas on Saturday.
A confidence builder, Sumlin labeled it. A complete team effort. A tribute to the “older guys” on the Aggie roster.
The praise sounded sincere, even the part when Sumlin labeled the struggling afternoon as “a confidence boost” for quarterback Kenny Hill.
And Hill’s Aggie teammates were echoing it.
“That just shows how we work,” said receiver Malcolm Kennedy, who caught the winning touchdown.
“We can score just like that (he snaps his fingers). It’s like gasoline to a fire.”
The gasoline part, if nothing else, was correct, because for all the postgame back-slapping, A&M’s unblemished season almost went up in flames Saturday at AT&T Stadium.
The Razorbacks haven’t won an SEC game in nearly two years, but they had a looming three-touchdown lead when running back Jonathan Williams dashed 55 yards to the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. A tripping penalty away from the run, however, wiped out the gain.
Earlier, a 34-yard second-quarter touchdown pass from Arkansas’ Brandon Allen to Hunter Henry was erased because of a holding penalty.
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And lest the No. 6-ranked Aggies forget, Razorbacks kicker John Henson botched a 44-yard field goal that would have given his team a 10-point lead with less than 2 ½ minutes to play.
A “heckuva game”? Yes, it was, if you like lucky finishes.
But I’ll call Sumlin’s bluff. The Aggies were 12 minutes away from another one of those there-goes-the-season defeats. Arkansas gashed the A&M defense for 285 yards on the ground. Allen, the quarterback who hasn’t copyrighted a nickname, had out-passed and outplayed Hill for three quarters.
If America was watching on CBS in the first three quarters, you knew what they were thinking:
Aggies overrated? Yessir!
But Sumlin was right.
“Our older guys led us,” the A&M coach said.
Guys — Kennedy, Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews, to name some — were getting shaken up, but running back into the game.
“That’s the kind of senior leadership it’s going to take in a league like this,” Sumlin said.
As for Arkansas, what should we have expected from a last-place SEC team? Coach Bret Bielema and the Hogs didn’t know how to respond once the penalty flags and stumbling defensive backs began to turn the momentum the Aggies’ way.
The lesson was obvious.
“When you’ve got your foot on somebody’s throat, keep it on it,” a shaken Bielema said.
“But we weren’t able to persevere, and I don’t know. The good Lord has got a plan for everybody.”
Maybe a plan for the Aggies, too. While underlining the day’s positives, Sumlin pointed out, “There are certainly a lot of things that we have got to clean up. There are a lot of examples in this game that, hey, yeah, we won the game, but we’ve got to get better.
“We’ve got to eliminate penalties. Far too many penalties today. And we turned it over.
“But, you know, we made enough plays at the end to win.”
Quarterback Hill might have been the best example of that. Forced by the Arkansas defense to elude the pass rush and make throws away from his comfort zone, the Southlake Carroll product misfired often during the first three quarters. As the final quarter began, Hill was 15 for 31 passing for a modest 182 yards.
“The game for me, it was up and down and up and down the whole time,” Hill said. “I need to make that a little bit better.”
Sumlin, I suspect, will make that a stern teaching point this coming week, as the Aggies prepare for Mississippi State.
Like the coach said, it wasn’t perfect. But maybe the Aggies needed a game like this — a jolt back to earth. Or at least to Starkville.