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Texas A&M 52, Wake Forest 55: The Belk Bowl was an Empty Temple of Excess

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After an interminable December that redefined the Aggie program, it was time to play a football game.

Rush Roberts

Agony.

There are a thousand words that could be used to describe the slow and imminent decline of the Sumlin era that came to a head on November 25th after a sixth straight loss to division rival LSU. A gradual buildup of resentment and frustrations and despair that was compounded by the knowledge that we were always so close, but could never live up to our own expectations, or even potential. It was agony.

Sumlin was fired the next day, and what followed was nearly a full week of wild speculation, rumors, gossip-mongering, chicanery, and general insanity surrounding the future of the program. Eventually the variant stories started to coalesce and the truth surfaced: A&M had poached Jimbo Fisher from Florida State.

The moment the jet landed and the boots were hoisted, Texas A&M took center stage in the college football universe. There were reactions and taeks of two varieties: hot and scalding. The Aggie Football program became the sleeping giant who had just woken up...without playing a single football game. Jimbo Madness dominated the news cycles as the football team quietly prepared to go to Charlotte and play a scrappy Wake Forest team.

This was a vital opportunity for many: for the few coaches whose future was uncertain, for the upperclassmen trying to improve draft stock, and the younger players trying to secure their positions. And also for the fans to drift back down from the clouds and watch an actual football game; to take a break from touting intangibles and to get a hard look at this team in their last effort heading into the Jimbo Fisher era.

Gameday broke cold and clear; the Charlotte skyline peering curiously over the rim of Bank of American Stadium. The crowd was sparse and both teams got off to somewhat jerky starts on their first drives. Both went three-and-out, and then interim head coach and special teams guru Jeff Banks brought a heavy punt block against Wake. Deshaun Capers-Smith got in for the block and Charles Oliver recovered it in the end zone. After getting a piece of the next punt, the Aggies cruised down the field in three plays and scored on a quick scamper by Williams.

And then things began to regress to the norm. Wake scored on a 50-yard pass play on blown coverage. The Aggie offense came out going backwards and was plagued by penalties. So was the defense. So was the special teams, and a roughing the kicker on a missed field goal gave Wake a second chance in the red zone and they did not squander it. It was tied 14-14 with just under six minutes left in the first quarter.

Uncertainty, but not really. It had happened before in numerous SEC games.

Then it somehow got even worse. A methodical passing game that alternately chipped away and opened up deep passing lanes got the Deacons another ten points by the early second quarter while the Aggie offense continued to sputter with no identity.

By this point it was all to familiar: sloppy execution, dropped passes, a lack of push by the offensive line, and an ultimate absence of any kind of leadership or identity on the offensive side of the ball.

Then came the Wake Forest punt return for a touchdown. 59 yards straight through the A&M unit that had looked fairly stout all season. 31-14 with 12:21 left in the second quarter. 31 unanswered points by the Demon Deacons and the entire A&M team in a confused shambles. They put together the semblance of a drive only to eventually lose a fumble inside the Wake 20.

The defense was able to cling to hope and force a field goal on the ensuing Wake drive, and the attempt was blocked. After hitting Ratley on a nice intermediate gain, Starkel found Christian Kirk wide open on a post route for a 52-yard touchdown, and the lead was down to 10, 31-21.

The mood on the sideline after this three-play, 75-yard TD drive was subdued. There was little overt excitement and virtually no outright celebration. It lent to the bizarre interim atmosphere surrounding this game. There was good-natured joshing and light shoving, but nothing approaching team-wide excitement. Granted, it was only halfway through the second quarter so there was no need for a sense of urgency, but it’s still the last football game that the Aggies will play for eight months.

And they did wake up a little. After falling behind 38-21, Starkel led the team on a 9-play 80-yard drive to cut the lead back to 10 at halftime, 38-28. The Aggies cut it again to 35-38 with a nice TD catch by Christian Kirk and held Wake Forest on the ensuing drive. The offense got the ball back and moved to midfield, where they inexplicably put in an ice-cold Kellen Mond on third and 2 and attempted a direct snap to Trayveon Williams for a loss of two. Punt again. Wake took the ball at the sixteen and drove down to the A&M nine thanks to another long pass completion. Fortunately, the defense held, and the offense came back out yet again with a chance to take the lead in the game for the first time since the first quarter.

[Ron Howard voice] They didn’t.

At least not at that point in time.

After Christian Kirk and Trayveon Williams left the field with injuries on back-to-back plays, Nick Starkel was hit mid-throw and the errant wobbler was easily intercepted by a Wake linebacker. Deacons with the ball at midfield and a six-point lead.

Wake was flirting with the red zone again when Renfrow stripped the ball from a Deacon receiver on the sideline and Larry Pryor scooped it up for 11 yards. A quick Keith Ford run put the ball inside the Wake 40, and Starkel began picking at the secondary with quick hits to Kirk (he got better!) and Ratley.

Keith Ford finally put the Aggies back on top with 1:59 left in the third quarter on a one-yard dive. After giving up 31 unanswered and falling behind by 17 in the first half, the Ags had the lead once again. This was the point where the team needed to coalesce. Some may complain that late in the third quarter in a back-and-forth game is not ideal, but to that I’d say: better late than never.

But it still never came completely together. The chemistry of this team was scattered and spread out into various percolations; the identities sometimes confused and ill-timed. They continued to do good things, then very good things, and eventually great things. Before long, there were a pair of hundred-yard receivers and Nick Starkel had torched Johnny Manziel’s Aggie QB bowl game record. But it never looked in sync at all for all that.

Fourth Quarter: will it tell us anything? The defense got the ball right back on another fumble recovery and set the Aggies up in the red zone. On a third-and-goal from inside the one, Keith Ford lost a yard to bring out the field goal team. LaCamera hit the nineteen yarder for the 45-41 lead, but the inability to pick up a foot with the game on the line was another reminder of how demoralizingly soft this team had been at times throughout the season.

Almost predictably, Wake drove all the way down the field and scored on fourth and goal from the 1 to retake the lead, 48-45. It was a touchdowns game now, field goals were surrender flags, if it wasn’t already too late.

[Ron Howard voice, again]: It was.

Starkel led another solid drive down to the 30, spreading it around to various receivers. A swing pass to Ford got the ball to the 20. The shadows were creeping up the walls of empty seats in the stadium’s upper reaches and the ribbon boards grew brighter during the TV timeouts.

WIth 6:15 remaining, Nick Starkel hit a TIGHT END for a gain of six yards, which was truly the pinnacle of how incredible his effort in this game had been. He connected with Ausmon for a 13-yard touchdown on the very next play to put the Aggies up 52-48.

Wake Forest got the ball with roughly six minutes left and methodically drove down inside the five before Jeff Banks used a timeout. The Deacons would score anyway on 3rd and goal from the 1 to go up 55-52 with 2:18 remaining.

And so that was it. With over 600 yards of offense amassed already, Christian Kirk and Jhamon Ausbon both with double-digit receptions, Starkel needed to eat up the middle of the field and get into LaCamera’s considerable field goal range.

It came down to this: a fourth and 15 with 30 or so seconds remaining from the wrong side of midfield, and Starkel overthrew Ratley, who was triple-covered, by a wide margin. The rollercoaster simply and silently ran out of gas and coasted to a stop in one of the final ruts in the track, out of sight and forgotten. The passengers got off, looking around at each other with uncertainty, and trudged silently into the warm and waiting locker rooms.

For what? Time will tell how the various performances we saw in the 2017 Belk Bowl tie into the beginning of the Jimbo Fisher era, but on the surface it seems like one last tribute to what we’ve been seeing for the past several years: numbers in excess, streaky excitement, emotional swings, but ultimately the inability to move the football one foot when it mattered the most.

2017 is in the books. Let’s all have a great 2018.