Better late than never: Texas A&M may have found its passing game

There’s nothing like a win, one where you set records and let every kid on the bench see some action, to give you a heaping dose of confidence.

Texas A&M, in beating New Mexico, 55-14 late Saturday, enjoyed a true overwhelming win for the first time this season. The SEC is set up to allow teams to play a hapless non-conference opponent each November. And the Aggies were in desperate need for something big and positive after losing three of their past four games.

Now, the bowl-eligible Aggies can breathe, at least for the next few days.

“It gave a lot of people some confidence they needed at this time of year,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

The excellent performance of redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, who hadn’t started a game since the season opener, probably was the best news of all. It signals that the offense possibly can rely on an effective passing game the rest of the season.

The Aggies (6-4, 3-3 SEC) have two remaining regular-season games — on the road against Ole Miss and LSU. Oddsmakers have established them as an underdog against the Rebels (5-5, 2-4). LSU likely will be favored when the two close the season on Nov. 25.

Ole Miss has been able to mash defenses with its potent passing attack. Junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu has thrown for 368, 382 and 418 yards in his last three games. He inherited the starting job after Shea Patterson injured his knee on Oct. 21.

Maybe Starkel can match Ta’amu.

He threw for 416 yards against New Mexico, completing 21 of his 30 attempts for four touchdowns. And he did it all in the first half.

“It wasn’t surprising at all,” safety Armani Watts said of Starkel’s performance. “He’s been slinging it like that every day in practice.”

Starkel hasn’t been made available for interviews since he arrived in College Station. He rarely says anything on social media, so not much is known about him. But late Saturday he posted a photo of himself on Twitter, saying he had dedicated the win to the A&M seniors. In the photo, Starkel, who is described as someone with a quirky personality, was wearing a Justin Bieber T-shirt and he quoted lyrics from rapper Rick Ross.

Sumlin said Tuesday he didn’t want to risk putting a red-hot Starkel back on the field in the third quarter, given that he was only cleared late last month for action after breaking his ankle in the season opener.

Here’s the context on Starkel’s accomplishment: No other quarterback in A&M history has exceeded 400 yards in a first half. And only one other freshman quarterback has surpassed 400 yards in a game. That was Johnny Manziel, who had 459 against Arkansas in 2012.

Sumlin was able to use all three of his quarterbacks Saturday night, including third-teamer Jake Hubenak, who had been sidelined with a shoulder injury. They collectively threw for 499 yards. It should be noted that the New Mexico defense was stacking its line to halt the Aggies’ runners, so receivers often were running free downfield.

A&M’s previous best passing day this season was 301 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 16. A&M has failed to crack 200 passing yards in five games this season. It’s a big reason why A&M ranks eighth among the 14 SEC teams in passing.

Before Starkel’s game against New Mexico, the last time an Aggie quarterback threw for more than 400 yards was in 2014, when Kenny Hill had 401 against Mississippi in a 35-20 loss.

Kellen Mond, who started in place of Starkel for eight games, played in the second half. He was 8 of 11 for 78 yards. It was his most accurate passing game, by far.

So maybe confidence, based on the play of A&M’s quarterbacks, will translate into more November wins.

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