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Texas A&M can't convert on final play, drops upset bid against No.1 Alabama 24-20

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — From a summer of back-and-forth fireworks between Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher and Alabama’s Nick Saban, it was the anticipation of the contact between those two shaking — or not shaking — hands that stirred college football fans flocking to Bryant-Denny Stadium for Saturday night’s Southeastern Conference matchup.

But it was contact at the goal line that will have the 100,077 in attendance and more watching at home chatting after the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s narrow 24-20 win over the Aggies.

After an evening of stop-start offense for the Aggies, the Aggies had one play from the Alabama 2-yard line to claim a second consecutive win over the Tide. Quarterback Haynes King looked to freshman wide receiver Evan Stewart running a comeback route in the front corner of the end zone to try and seal the win. The pass appeared well out of reach and well out of the end zone, but defensive back Terrion Arnold appeared to make contact with Stewart on the play. Officials threw no flag, and Alabama’s players gathered in the end zone for a celebration.

A&M athletics director Ross Bjork stepped onto the field and emphatically made a flag-throwing gesture toward the side judge. Fisher’s son, Ethan, charged down the field towards the ref, shouting a few opinions of his own. Walking across the field, a stunned-looking Stewart said he believed there was illegal contact on the play.

Fisher declined to give his take on what occurred.

“I can’t,” Fisher said. “I can’t say that right now. I’ll look at it later.”

A&M wide receiver Moose Muhammad III was the benefactor of the same play call in the second quarter, scoring on a 5-yard touchdown catch running a short curl route to King’s left. It was A&M’s first score of the game and first of two touchdowns after Alabama fumbles.

“We had three options on the front side, and [King] read it,” Fisher said. “It was the same play we scored on earlier, and we hit Moose on, and they changed the coverage, and he went right back and made a perfect read. They played it off the first time, and we knew if they did it, we would have a one-on-one in the back side.”

On the back side of Muhammad’s touchdown catch, Stewart ran a comeback route that went all the way to the cross in the final A of “Alabama” before he worked his way back to the pylon. On the game’s final play, Stewart only reached the bottom of the same A before trying to work back to King.

“I’ve got to look at the route to see what it was,” Fisher said. “The read was perfect for what they did coveragewise. ... It was pylon. He was supposed to go 4 to 5 [yards] up in the end zone and break back 1 [yard] short of the pylon.”

After the game, former A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel tweeted his dislike for the play call.

“One of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in my life,” he tweeted. “You have one play to beat the #1 team in the country and that’s what we run.”

“Every single practice you have a goal line period and practice these type of situations. That’s a joke of an ending for the Aggies,” Manziel said in another tweet.

A&M’s receivers entered Saturday’s contest prone to wither in traffic, and Stewart entered the game second in the SEC in dropped passes with five. But the freshman from Frisco made two catches in traffic that helped A&M have a chance for the upset.

The first, a 43-yard leaping grab with a defender draped on him, led to the Aggies’ second touchdown, a 3-yard pass from King to tight end Donovan Green that tied the game at 14. That drive also began on a fumble by Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe, making his first career start for the injured Bryce Young. A&M defensive end Fadil Diggs forced the fumble.

Stewart’s second big catch in traffic came on the Aggies’ final drive of the game.

“You’ve got to make contested catches and make plays,” Fisher said. “Think of the plays we made tonight compared to what we’ve dropped in the last two weeks. It’s part of growth.”

Despite making 10 defensive stops in the game, including four turnovers, A&M couldn’t consistently slow Alabama’s rushing attack. Running back Jammer Gibbs scampered for 154 yards on 21 attempts, followed by Milroe’s 83 yards on 17 attempts. The rushing attack set up three Milroe TD passes — two in the second quarter and one on the first drive of the third quarter.

But unlike last week, Milroe spent the game working under pressure. With a more aggressive game plan from defensive coordinator DJ Durkin, the Aggies recorded four sacks after entering Saturday with six this season. A&M also had 10 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.

After two field goals from A&M kicker Randy Bond in the third and fourth quarters, the Aggies relied on two missed field goals by Alabama to give themselves one more shot at winning with the ball at their own 29 and 1:50 left on the clock.

“We were confident that the offense was going to do its thing,” Diggs said. “We’re always confident in the offense.”

A&M’s offense finished with 323 total yards. King completed 25 of 46 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Running back Devon Achane ran for 62 yards on 16 carries, and Stewart pulled down eight catches for 106 yards.

Fisher and Saban exchanged pleasantries and a short handshake at the end of the game, and the Aggies made their way to the locker room feeling both deflated and uplifted after a high-contact SEC Saturday night.

“There are no such thing as moral victories,” Fisher said. “But it does show you what we’re capable of and how we can play and the things we can do. We have to regroup next week and play our tails off and get better and play these last six games the way we need to play the rest of the year. Hopefully this will give us some vision of what we can be and what we can do.”

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