Texas A&M survives potential upset in opener, but needs quick improvements with grueling upcoming schedule

COLLEGE STATION –Ainias Smith provided an early spark for Texas A&M.

Isaiah Spiller and the defense generated the second-half energy that the No. 10 Aggies desperately needed to escape their season opener with a 17-12 win over Vanderbilt.

“A victory is a victory,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said, “but all three phases [of the game] didn’t play how I thought we could or how we can.”

In a day filled with upsets and near-upsets from Norman to Baton Rouge, A&M survived despite three lost fumbles — two by senior quarterback Kellen Mond — and also misfired on a fourth-down handoff in the fourth quarter that kept giving the Commodores life.

“We got to protect the football,” Fisher said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Mond finished with 17 of 28 for 189 yards and one touchdown while trying to build chemistry with a group of young receivers.

“He can play much better,” Fisher said, noting that the four-year starter had looked much better in preseason camp.

Spiller provided the offensive boost A&M needed, rushing for 117 yards on eight carries with all but five yards coming in the second half. It was the fifth career 100-yard rushing game for the sophomore, who had runs for 57, 30 and 24 yards.

The A&M defense did the rest, with two key second-half interceptions in the red zone by Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal. Micheal Clemens sacked Vanderbilt freshman quarterback Ken Seals for an 8-yard loss on third down with A&M clinging to a five-point lead late.

“As a defensive line we wanted to show what we were doing in practice,” Clemens said.

Vanderbilt was forced to punt and A&M killed the clock, with the help of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason.

Senior linebackers Aaron Hansford and Buddy Johnson led the A&M defense with 11 tackles each. Hansford replaced Anthony Hines, who decided to opt out of the season last week.

“Our secondary did a great job. They stepped up,” Johnson said. “That’s what it’s all about, the defense stepping up when we have to.”

Still, the game wasn’t exactly the start that A&M fans had envisioned with 14 starters returning from an 8-5 season and stockpiled talent from Fisher’s recruiting classes.And A&M will have to be much better pretty quick: the next three games are against No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Florida and Mississippi State — with old Aggie nemesis Mike Leach — which stunned defending national champion LSU.

“I can promise you this, it’s a lot easier to fix mistakes when you win than when you lose,” Fisher said.

Like nearly everything else about the 2020 college season, the game had a strange vibe. Attendance was announced at 24,073 capped at 25% capacity at cavernous Kyle Field.

In other strangeness:

  • A 7-5 halftime score that prompted all kinds of three-run homer references? Hey, it wasn’t even the first such oddity in the SEC openers, following Georgia-Arkansas.
  • Vanderbilt was awarded a safety for an A&M blindside block in the end zone on an ill-advised punt return by Smith.
  • A video halftime performance by the Fightin’ Texas Aggie band, which was limited to the stands by the SEC’s COVID-19 game protocols.
  • The Aggies also had to improvise on one of their traditions, holding a virtual Midnight Yell with the tradition livestreamed from Kyle Field.

A&M sputtered early, although Smith broke a 25-yard run in the first quarter to give the Aggies a 7-3 lead. He finished with 51 yards on 10 carries.

Still, Vanderbilt held a 154-122 edge in yards at halftime and hung around much too long. While the Commodores have been competitive under Mason, they’ve won just 10 SEC games since 2014.

“I’m confident in our guys,” Clemens said. “We’ll be better next week, offense and defense.”Added Mond: “I think every win is a good win.”

Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond (11) throws a pass against Vanderbilt during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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