It was a tale of two halves for Texas A&M on Tuesday night at the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and as usual, the team's inconsistent defense found itself at the center of the ordeal. And while a heavy majority of SportsCenter highlights will be of Johnny Manziel doing Johnny Football things, the Aggie defense's second-half recovery was the difference between a stunning victory and a crushing defeat.
Not only did the squad bail itself out of trouble on New Year's Eve, but it also gave a slight glimpse into the future of the young—but highly talented—unit of defenders.
"As a team we came out and each and every one of us was a man," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "We just stepped up in the end and made plays when it counted, came out with a W."
The A&M defense kicked off the game by allowing Duke to score on all six of its first-half possessions, five of which were touchdowns, and entered halftime down 38-17 to a surging Blue Devils squad.
Following halftime, though, the Aggie defense only allowed Duke 10 points on six drives, forcing two interceptions—including the game-winning pick six—a turnover on downs and a missed field goal. The result was the difference in the game, as it allowed Manziel the opportunity to mount a second-half rally which included five consecutive touchdowns and victory formation.
On the game, A&M allowed 661 total offensive yards but played a critical role in the largest comeback in school history.
And all with a starting unit littered with inexperienced and youthful talent.
The defense used approximately seven freshmen or sophomore defenders consistently throughout the game, not including suspended freshman starting linebacker Darian Claiborne, who led the team in tackles entering the matchup. Freshmen Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall, Noel Ellis and Shaan Washington, along with sophomore Alonzo Williams, played crucial roles in A&M's brilliant second-half resurgence.
"Our young guys who played a lot of football this year, got on the stage like the one tonight, national television with everybody watching and responding, not quitting, that really sets the tone for things to come," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "A bunch of those freshmen that played a lot this year, they're going to have to draw on these experiences and get better and be leaders for us going into next year."
The youth and inexperience blatantly shined through during the Aggies' miserable first-half performance, but a strong outing following halftime adjustments proved the unit effective under pressure and able to compete at a high level despite a large deficit.
And while Manziel's professional future in the NFL continues to hang in the balance, the defense's dense talent in its young athletes allows a positive spin for a unit that underperformed in the 52-48 bowl victory.
And following a rough finish such as that, an encouraging spin is just what the doctor ordered for the A&M defense.