There was a moment in the Gator Bowl when Texas A&M looked like it might be in trouble.
North Carolina State took the ball and shoved it right down the Aggies’ throats. The Wolfpack went 12 plays, 71 yards for a drive that bled nearly six minutes off the clock for a field goal. On the next drive, NC State nabbed an interception off Kellen Mond, and converted it into a touchdown on the next drive.
The Aggies went three-and-out on the next possession after two Mond passes and a two-yard run from running back Trayveon Williams. The Wolfpack leveraged that favorable field position for a field goal to take a 13-7 lead in the second quarter.
Texas A&M was getting whipped on both lines in a game that it was a touchdown favorite. After a 62-yard rushing touchdown on the second play of the game from Mond, the Aggies mustered just 81 yards on 3.5 yards per play over the next four drives.
Recent Texas A&M teams haven’t dealt well with adversity. In the last three years alone, the Aggies lost three bowl games each by a single score. Last season, the Aggies allowed an average Wake Forest team to drive down the field for a game-winning touchdown with two minutes left to win the Belk Bowl.
“You have to learn to play in bowl games, you have to learn to prepare for bowl games, you have to learn how to play in these big games and do the things you’ve got to do. I’m very proud of them in that regard,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.
North Carolina State scored its second field goal with 10:45 remaining in the second. From that point on, Texas A&M owned this ball game, and made a huge statement about its future.
After a turnover on downs, the Aggies’ defense forced a three-and-out. On the next drive, Mond found tight end Jace Sternberger for a 28-yard reception. Two plays later, Williams ran for 30 yards to set up a two-yard touchdown to take a 14-13 lead.
The Aggies forced another three-and-out on the next drive. Mond orchestrated an 11-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that took 5:15 off the clock and gave the Aggies a strong 21-13 lead. Freshman safety Leon O’Neal picked off future NFL quarterback Ryan Finley to end the half, and the Aggies had all the momentum.
On the first drive of the second half, linebacker Tyrel Dodson picked off Finley and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown to take a dominant 28-13 lead. From that point, the blowout was on.
It’s fitting that Dodson, Sternberger, Mond and Williams were the players to spark the dramatic run to the Aggies’ first bowl win since 2014. Those have been the most important players in building the culture in the short Fisher era.
“We’re definitely molding and showing where this program is going in a new direction,” Williams said. “This is the first game for the beginning of the 2019 season, and we’ve got to get this thing going right. We got that win, so I’m happy.”
Williams has helped set the new expectations at Texas A&M perhaps more than any player in the program. He set a Gator Bowl record with 236 rushing yards on Monday, and added a cool three touchdowns. His 1,760 rushing yards are best in Texas A&M history, and his 18 rushing scores are tied for No. 4. With his Gator Bowl performance, Williams eclipsed 2,000 all-purpose yards.
Williams has a year of eligibility remaining, but will have to seriously consider leaving early for the NFL draft. Regardless, he’s left his imprint on the Aggie program.
The Aggies made a major gamble when they threw $75 million in guaranteed money at Fisher to poach him from Florida State. But already in year one, the Aggies are doing things they did not accomplish consistently in six years under Kevin Sumlin.
Texas A&M outlasted LSU in the highest-scoring FBS football game ever played. The Aggies won nine games for the first time since Johnny Manziel left. They are ranked No. 3 nationally in the 247 composite recruiting rankings. There’s more optimism in College Station than perhaps any time in modern history.
The Gator Bowl was one game against a decent North Carolina State opponent. It doesn’t matter. Monday was an opportunity to take a step forward and build the culture of the program. The Aggies passed with flying colors.