COLLEGE STATION -- The Missouri contingent of supporters conducted themselves with the utmost decorum while tucked into the southeast corner of Kyle Field on Saturday, cheering modestly as the Tigers defeated No. 16 Texas A&M 38-31 in overtime offering a preview of what might one day be an interdivisional SEC battle.
They were more reserved than rollicking, erupting only after Missouri nose guard Dominique Hamilton deflected a Ryan Tannehill pass intended for Aggies receiver Ryan Swope on fourth down in overtime.
Five weeks earlier, the Aggies were subjected to the derisive cheers of Oklahoma State fans after the Cowboys fashioned an improbable second-half rally here, serenading their conference rivals with mocking "Big 12" chants as the Aggies dejectedly trudged off the field on Sept. 24.
Missouri left well enough alone, opting not to poke Texas A&M with the same dismissive stick. The Tigers understand that had the Aggies not bolted through the door of conference realignment and into the SEC, there would have been no crack for which they could slip through. Missouri joyously celebrated its victory but didn't gloat, exercising caution not to bite the hand that pointed to its Big 12 escape.
The Aggies have more pressing concerns than what Alabama and LSU might do to them next season. For the third time in six contests they coughed up a cushy second-half lead. This season began bloated with promise for the Aggies (5-3, 3-2 Big 12), but now that Missouri (4-4, 2-3 Big 12) has done what Oklahoma State and future SEC rival Arkansas did earlier, Texas A&M sits on the brink of collapse.
"Yeah, it takes away goals, but I'm not done playing football," Tannehill said. "I'm here to play a full season. I go out there every week to win, and that's what it's going to be the rest of the year."
Texas A&M has made it easy to wonder if this nosedive will end in any event other than a catastrophic crash. The Aggies led Oklahoma State 20-3 at the intermission before losing 30-29. The following week they blew a 35-17 halftime lead to Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington en route to a 42-38 defeat. Missouri followed the same script, taking advantage while the Aggies self-destructed in the second half.
There were no first-half signs portending what the second half would bring. Texas A&M closed four consecutive drives with touchdowns, covering ground with such ease that Missouri should've considered itself lucky to be within 11 points at the break. Tannehill threw for three touchdowns and ran for another while the Aggies amassed 271 yards. Their offense was crisp and balanced, and after the Tigers punted to cap their opening possession of the second half, Texas A&M quickly covered 40 yards and threatened to put the game on ice.
Then came the first sign of trouble. On third-and-1 at the Missouri 32 the Aggies were whistled for the first of their four second-half false starts. That possession ended when Swope fumbled on the ensuing snap twisting for a first down after making a 6-yard catch.
The Aggies were flagged for false starts on their next two possessions, stalling their running attack. Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman made a point of mentioning the legality of the Tigers' last-second shifting on the defensive line, a passive-aggressive approach to questioning the integrity of a tactic that appeared to rattle his linemen.
"They were stemming their front and they would make a call on defense, 'Move!' and it sounded somewhat similar to our snap count," Sherman said. "That's part of football, it happens everywhere so there's no excuses for that. We just have to lock in."
Preparation was one buzzword in the aftermath of this debacle. Texas A&M opened the game ranked fifth nationally in rush defense, allowing just 79.7 yards per game. Conversely, Missouri entered leading the Big 12 in rushing at 238.1 yards per game and, after posting a moderate total of 91 yards on 19 carries in the first half, exploded for 193 yards on 31 carries after the intermission, including 122 in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers' two fourth-quarter scoring drives including explosive running plays from Missouri tailback Henry Josey (20 carries, 162 yards) on first down. Missouri quarterback James Franklin chipped in 97 rushing yards and two touchdowns as the Tigers exploited both gaping holes in the Texas A&M defense and the Aggies' shoddy tackling.
"They were running a post-read play. They made an adjustment that caught us off guard," Aggies linebacker Sean Porter said. "We couldn't figure out what the problem was with us fitting that. That's what changed. They were beating us with one play over and over and over."
So while Missouri ran roughshod over a defense that suddenly couldn't plug a nosebleed, the Aggies managed just one second-half field goal, points that came only after a replay review overturned an on-field ruling of a fumble by tailback Cyrus Gray with a little more than four minutes remaining. Tannehill added two turnovers to the Swope fumble, both courtesy of defenders closing from his blind side, and the Aggies somehow squandered a 500-yard effort on a whopping 99 plays.
Once Franklin hit Marcus Lucas for an 11-yard score and Missouri surged ahead in overtime, it was only a matter of how the Aggies would lose, not if. These collapses have become disturbingly commonplace, with the only difference on Saturday being the quality of competition. Unlike the Cowboys and Razorbacks, the Tigers aren't a threat to win a conference crown. This loss was far more improbable than the others.
At one point earlier this season, the Aggies were considered viable contenders to the Big 12 throne. Now, they are in scramble mode.
"It's what Coach Sherman said: these are the toughest ones to lose, the closest ones," Swope said. "He said great teams come back and fight, and we're going to do that. We're going to have a good week of practice, we're going to take a look at the film, and we're going to look at the positives. We have a tough schedule left, and we're going to build on it.
"We're going to stay positive throughout the rest of the season. That's all you can do. We have great seniors on the team, great leaders, and we just have to keep moving forward."
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