Auburn rolls A&M, 42-27, thanks to big plays on offense, special teams

Ignore the stats and the what-if’s.

If you want to know why Texas A&M lost 42-27 to Auburn Saturday afternoon, study one series. It happened near the end of the second quarter — when the Aggies had the ball.

The Tigers took a 14-13 lead on Jarrett Stidham’s 53-yard touchdown pass to Darius Slayton. After the kickoff, the Aggies took over at their own 20 with 1 minute, 36 seconds to play. Rather than push for points, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin turned protective and conservative. A&M quarterback Nick Starkel handed off two straight times, as Auburn called a timeout after each run.

On the nexy play, Starkel carried the ball for a gain of three and Sumlin called timeout, presumably to make sure everything was secure when it came to blocking for punter Shane Tripucka.

But Auburn blocked the punt. Nick Rufin’s swat was emphatic. The ball bounded towards the end zone and as many as six Tigers were in position to score the touchdown. Malik Miller got the honors.

“And that was a game changer,” Sumlin said. “Even with it, you still have a whole half to play. We talked about that at halftime, it being a one possession game, but that is why we let it run down and took a timeout to take some time out of it. They got the block for the touchdown, and that was disappointing, but you still have to play. You still have plenty of time to do something about that, and we didn’t respond.”

Halftime didn’t curb Auburn’s momentum.

The Tigers (7-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) opened the third quarter with two straight touchdown drives to stretch the score to 35-13. Auburn dictated to the A&M defense, whether it was Stidham’s passing or the running of Kerryon Johnson, who gained 145 yards.

By game’s end, much of the announced crowd of 100,257 fans at Kyle Field had fled the stadium. They’d seen this before. It was a repeat of what happened last Saturday when the Aggies (5-4, 3-3) lost by 21 points to Mississippi State. And it looked a lot like what unfolded during the month of November in each of the last seasons, all of which ended 8-5.

With three games remaining in the regular season, the best A&M can do is win eight games. The Aggies are still in need of a win to become bowl eligible. Presumably, that win would come next Saturday when A&M plays host to New Mexico in its home finale. The Aggies then travel to Mississippi and LSU.

A&M, in the previous three Novembers, won only two SEC games — at Auburn (2014) and at Vanderbilt (2015).

Meanwhile, Auburn stayed in contention for the SEC West title. The 15th-ranked Tigers still have games against No. 1 Georgia, Louisiana-Monroe and No. 2 Alabama, all at home.

Kellen Mond, the true freshman, started at quarterback for A&M. But he officially lost his job with about 10 minutes to go in the second quarter after the Aggie offense struggled for a fourth straight three-and-out series. Sumlin inserted Starkel, who saw his first extended playing time since breaking his ankle in the season opener.

Starkel was accurate, crisply leading the Aggies on a 9-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to give them a 10-7 lead. He completed 11 of his 22 passes for 184 yards. Starkel threw touchdown passes of 62 and 8 yards to Damion Ratley. But those scores came after Auburn built a 35-13 advantage.

Instead, it was Stidham, the Baylor transfer, who dazzled. He threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns, giving him his best performance against an FBS team since he played for the Bears in 2015. The Aggies passed on Stidham twice in the recruiting process, when he was a senior out of Stephenville High School and after he transferred from Baylor last year.

“Obviously, I’ve had this one circled for a while,” Stidham said. “Any time I get to come back home, being so far away, it’s exciting for me, and my family and friends. It was great. Ultimately, we got the win and that’s the most important thing.”

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