HOUSTON The performance was gleeful in the moment, relieving in the end and tantalizing in retrospect.
Nobody would have blamed Texas A&M for losing to Northwestern on Saturday. For goodness sake, one of the Aggies teammates died last week. The school fired their coach last month. The muggy August dreams of a national championship had died long before the first freeze.
"It would have been easy for our guys to say today, this is a lost season," interim coach Tim DeRuyter said.
Instead, Texas A&M (7-6) beat Northwestern (6-7) 33-22 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Saturday at Reliant Stadium in Houston. They led the game 30-7 late in the third quarter and doggone it if they weren't finally showing something on the way out. They were tempting us. Taunting us to believe in the thing they had convinced us all to believe back in August, that somewhere inside this 6-6 disappointment was a team good enough to win it all, good enough to beat anybody, certainly good enough to blow out Northwestern.
Right up to the end, the Aggies believed all that.
"We never wanted to lose sight of who we thought we were, who we are," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "We thought we were going to play in the national championship game."
For three quarters, the Aggies looked like that kind of team. But it was only a little taste of what might have been. Lick the batter off the spoon, but you aren't getting the cake.
Texas A&M never quite gets the cake.
Oh, I was putting the icing on it. Drew a nice little picture of Reveille on top, even. The season had been lost, but at least the Aggies went out they way we thought they would come in, I was writing. They finally looked like champions.
Until they didn't. They won the game, and did it under adverse circumstances. They deserve credit, probably even some praise just for doing that. There is no taking that away. It's just that if hanging on to beat Northwestern with a big drive in the final minutes qualifies as some representation of What Could Have Been, then Texas A&M's program has more in common with Northwestern than Alabama.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
But, of course, that isn't the case. Nobody thought that before the game, and nobody who saw Saturday's game thought that afterward.
The Aggies' athletic advantage was visible from outer space. Northwestern could not block Texas A&M's defensive line, and had trouble keeping up with the Aggies' receivers, too. Texas A&M had eight sacks and held the Big Ten's top passing team to 226 passing yards while throwing for 329 of their own. By the time Texas A&M went up 30-7 midway through the third quarter, it seemed clear there would be no collapse this time.
The Aggies were just too good. And how weird did it feel to think that about a 6-6 team?
It felt strange, because you had to wonder while the Aggies were blowing leads all season they had a lead in every game they played if they were really as good as we had all thought when they were ranked in the top 10 before the season. After all, there is always some landmark, some abandoned farm house or the next creeking windmill at which you conclude you aren't on the right path to the cocktail party. And at some blown lead, be it 18 points against Arkansas, 17 against Oklahoma State, 14 against Missouri, 13 against Texas or 10 against Kansas State, you wonder if your eyes are deceiving you. Maybe Jeff Fuller and Ryan Tannehill aren't that good. Maybe the defense was overrated. Maybe all those scouting services had it all wrong.
You come to some kind of peace with it. Maybe this really was just an average team and maybe beating another average team to finish with a winning record would be something to be celebrate.
And just when you think that, the Aggies pull you back in. They go up 30-7. You wonder about hidden greatness. You think maybe there was one team on the field Saturday that belonged at 6-6, and one that belonged somewhere more glorious than that.
With 5:22 left, Texas A&M's offense had the ball and an eight-point lead. In so many ways, this drive would define the season. Score, and it's a winning season. Don't score, and who knows.
"I'm glad we were put in that situation," Tannehill said. "That was something that haunted us all year."
On third-and-6 from the Northwestern 47, Tannehill threw a pass down the sideline to Jeff Fuller. Fuller, like the rest of the Aggies, had a disappointing season. There were drops and injuries all year. But Saturday he was healthy, and on third down he made the catch for a 29-yard gain. With 30 seconds left, Texas A&M kicked a field goal to clinch it.
It wasn't the national championship. Not even close. And no, the Aggies didn't look good enough for that, either. But Texas A&M hadn't won a bowl game since 2001.
The Aggies did that Saturday, and if you couldn't say anything else about it, you could say that.
"It's been a long year," Tannehill said.