JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two plays into the Gator Bowl on Monday night, Texas A&M scored more points than it did in its previous sojourn to the Gator, 61 years prior.
The rest of the game’s 59 minutes went much more swimmingly for the Aggies, too, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A&M defeated North Carolina State 52-13 in a half-full TIAA Bank Field, in snapping a three-game losing streak in bowl games, in first-year coach Jimbo Fisher’s first try.
Junior running back Trayveon Williams of C.E. King turned in a career night along the way, in a sea of career Saturdays over his three standout seasons with the Aggies. Williams snapped the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,760 yards, previously held by Darren Lewis, who rushed for 1,692 in 1988.
In addition Williams wiped out another Lewis mark, in breaking a tie for career 200-yard rushing games at A&M. Williams finished with 236 yards on Monday, giving him five games over his three seasons to rush for at least 200 yards. Lewis collected four from 1987-1990.
The Aggies (9-4) played in Jacksonville for the first time since the 1957 Gator Bowl, a 3-0 loss to Tennessee in what turned out to be coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s final game with the Aggies.
A&M wasted no time getting on the board this time around, and this time in the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, an NFL franchise since 1995. On the second play from scrimmage, A&M sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond blasted 62 yards for a touchdown, leaving a lead-footed Wolfpack defense in his tracks.
The Aggies’ early lead proved to be fleeting, however, as the Wolfpack (also 9-4) scored the next 13 points on a couple of field goals and a 9-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Finley to CJ Riley.
Undaunted and in a new era under Fisher, the Aggies overcame an early ineffective passing game to grab back the lead in the second quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by Williams and a stretching 6-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone by Kendrick Rogers.
This time around there was no letup, with A&M quickly padding its 21-13 halftime lead early in the third quarter – and this time courtesy of the defense. Linebacker Tyrel Dodson stepped in front of a wayward Finley pass and returned the interception 78 yards about four minutes into the second half.
That abrupt score shoved the Aggies’ lead to 28-13, and A&M’s inspired defense was able to pin its ears back against a suddenly-scrambling Wolfpack offense. Meantime Williams, in likely his last game for the Aggies as he’s expected to declare for the NFL Draft, worked over the Wolfpack in record fashion.
Sixty-one years ago and the last time the Aggies played in the Gator, Bryant soon after returned to his alma mater of Alabama, where he won five Associated Press national titles over the next couple of decades. The Aggies don’t have to be concerned with Fisher leaving anytime soon, after he just wrapped up his first season of a 10-year guaranteed deal paying $7.5 million annually.
The Aggies, favored by a touchdown, were playing without senior linebacker Otaro Alaka (hand surgery) and senior safety Donovan Wilson (hernia surgery), the defense’s two top tacklers this season.
The Wolfpack were without two of their best players, although the duo’s absence wasn’t related to injuries. Receiver Kelvin Harmon and linebacker Germaine Pratt each opted to sit out the minor bowl in preparation for the NFL Draft.
Fisher coached his first game back in Florida since exiting Florida State a year ago, and many FSU fans are still annoyed the coach who led the Seminoles to a 2013 national title bolted for the Lone Star State last December.
It’s becoming apparent to Aggies why the FSU faithful is still irritated. A&M won its fourth consecutive game to close out the regular season, the first time that’s happened since 2012, in then-coach Kevin Sumlin’s first season, and the Aggies’ first go-round in the SEC.
Sumlin wasn’t able to sustain that early success, however, and was fired in November 2017 following consecutive seasons of stumbles in that pivotal month. By late Monday, A&M had won nine games in a season for the first time since 2013, the last year of dynamic quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2012.
The Aggies played with stickers on their helmets commemorating Houstonian and President George H.W. Bush, who died in late November and is buried at his presidential library in College Station.