Eye test: Passed.
No. 5 Texas A&M went into Neyland Stadium and made their case as the Aggies dominated Tennesse, 34-13. A&M held the ball for 44:09 and gained 497 yards on offense all while limiting the Volunteers to just 213 yards.
And now they wait.
The win was the Aggies’ seventh in a row and their sixth-consecutive SEC game by double digits. That’s convincing in any season — let alone an all-conference slate in the nation’s best league.
In what was perhaps the most important game in program history, A&M’s strengths rose to the forefront. Consistent play from Kellen Mond, a lethal rushing attack and a stingy defense all played huge on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Knoxville.
Mond was outstanding on Saturday afternoon.
Mond threw for 281 yards and completed 26 of 32 attempts for a 159.1 rating. Isaiah Spiller and Ainias Smith ran for 89 and 70 yards, respectively, for a rushing attack that totaled 216. The Aggie defense held Tennessee’s ground attack to just 24 yards.
On the game’s opening drive, the Vols utilized their play-action passing game to attack the Aggie secondary and first-time starter cornerback Brian George. True freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey easily marched the home team down the field, getting on the scoreboard first with a 33-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Warren.
Disaster almost struck on the Aggies’ first possession. On second-and-10, Mond initially kept the ball on an option play but foolishly attempted to toss it back to Isaiah Spiller as he was being wrapped up. Fortunately, Spiller recovered the fumble, which allowed the A&M drive to survive.
Mond would then settle in, making good decisions through the air (including a key third-down 18-yard completion to Jalen Wydermyer) and with his legs. The senior signal-caller delivered the much-needed response in the form of a 5-yard scoring scamper to pull even, 7-7.
The Aggie defense came up with a crucial three-and-out, punctuated by Tyree Johnson, who knocked the ball out of Bailey’s hand as he reeled back to throw that was ultimately recovered by a Tennessee lineman.
A&M’s offense continued to stay in rhythm as Mond led a 69-yard drive that ended in a Spiller 3-yard rush as the Maroon & White took the lead, 14-7, early in the second stanza. On the possession, the Aggie offense converted on all three of their third-down opportunities.
On Tennessee’s next series, the Vols reached midfield before DeMarvin Leal got home on Bailey and forced a fumble. Linebacker Andre White won the scramble to the football, giving the Maroon & White outstanding field position in positive territory.
The Aggies got down to the UT 6-yard line before the drive stalled. Still, Seth Small tacked three on to the A&M lead with a 23-yard field goal.
Jeremy Pruitt turned to J.T. Shrout at quarterback on the next series. On his second attempt of the game, Shrout took a deep shot that was hauled in by a diving Cedric Tillman for a 46-yard touchdown to cut into the A&M lead, 17-13. Toby Wilson missed the ensuing point-after.
After a massive hands-to-the-face penalty bailed out the A&M offense, Mond connected with Hezekiah Jones for 25 yards as the Aggies moved into Tennessee territory with time winding down in the first half. Mond then found Spiller for 11 yards as A&M moved into the red zone. Three plays later, the Aggies were in the checkered end zone again, as Mond hit Ainiash Smith for a 4-yard touchdown grab. The Aggies would take a 24-13 lead into the break.
After the two sides exchanged punts to begin the third quarter, the Aggies drove into the red zone. On third-and-10 from the 11, Mond threw into coverage, and Alontae Taylor picked off the pass on the goal line. The interception was returned all the way to the Tennessee 45. However, Mike Elko’s defense came up big, forcing a three-and-out that was aided by a pair of false-start penalties against the Vols.
Fisher and Dickey elected for a more methodical, slower-paced offensive attack that leaned heavily on the run with Spiller. Mond then hit Wydermyer down the seam for 28-yards into Volunteer territory. Ryan Renick also got involved, catching a 9-yard pass. A&M then returned to the run as Smith punched it in from the one-yard line, giving A&M an 18-point advantage.
The Aggies did what they could, but now must wait for the committee’s decision.
Small would add three more points with just over a minute to play after Fisher elected to kick a field goal rather than run up the score.
While some will bring up “style points” as a reason to keep A&M out of the playoff, Fisher likely won’t care as his team played their game and executed the gameplan to near-perfection. Those making the decisions should see that.
With the regular season officially wrapped, the Aggies must await the announcement of their postseason fate. The College Football Playoff selection show will air at 11 a.m. CT Sunday on ESPN. Should A&M not be included in the four-team field, a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl — either the Cotton or Orange — would be their likely destination.
RUMBLED: On a day when the Aggies looked to make a statement, their senior quarterback stepped up. Kellen Mond completed 26 of 32 passing attempts for 281 yards and one touchdown. He added 59 yards and another score with his legs. Even with the costly interception in the third-quarter, Mond played a heck of a football game.
STUMBLED: Perhaps it was the absence of Eric Gray or maybe it was the dominance of the Aggie front seven. Whatever the reason, Tennessee’s rushing attack couldn’t get going as the Volunteers could only manage 24 yards on the ground.
TURNING POINT: On Texas A&M’s second offensive play, Mond attempted an ill-advised pitch to Spiller on an option play. Fortunately, Spiller recovered the loose ball. The Aggie offense found their rhythm on the very next play.
UNSUNG HERO: While he struggled to get it going on the ground until late, Isaiah Spiller still found a way to contribute. He reeled in six receptions for 60 receiving yards to go along with 89 yards on 26 carries.
KEY STAT: Time of possession. The Aggies had the ball for 44:09. They dominated the flow of the game and controlled it from wire-to-wire. A&M ran 79 plays to Tennessee’s 37.
UT: 12:28 – Harrison Bailey 33-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Warren. Drive: 5 plays, 75 yards. TOP: 2:32. Tennessee 7, Texas A&M 0
A&M: 6:32 – Kellen Mond 5-yard touchdown run. Drive: 10 plays, 75 yards. TOP: 5:56. Tennessee 7, Texas A&M 7
A&M: 13:17 – Isaiah Spiller 3-yard touchdown run. Drive: 12 plays, 69 yards. TOP: 6:12. Texas A&M 14, Tennessee 7
A&M: 5:52 – Seth Small 23-yard field goal. Drive: 9 plays, 33 yards. TOP: 5:30. Texas A&M 17, Tennessee 7
UT: 4:08 – J.T. Shrout 46-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Tillman (Toby Wilson kick missed). Drive: 4 plays, 75 yards. TOP: 1:44. Texas A&M 17, Tennessee 13
A&M: 0:18 – Kellen Mond 4-yard touchdown pass to Ainias Smith. Drive: 11 plays, 45 yards. TOP: 3:50. Texas A&M 24, Tennessee 13
A&M: 9:02 – Ainias Smith 1-yard touchdown run. Drive: 13 plays, 88 yards. TOP: 7:06. Texas A&M 31, Tennessee 13
A&M: 1:16 – Seth Small 21-yard field goal. Drive: 8 plays, 68 yards. TOP: 5:19. Texas A&M 34, Tennessee 13