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October 7, 2012

Change in mindset leads to changes on the scoreboard

JACKSON, MISS.-- Last night, Texas A&M senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart was asked if he'd ever seen a game turn around as quickly and decisively as the Aggies' 30-27 did in the last 7 minutes of the game.

"Maybe on ESPN Classic," he replied.

A&M fans, on the other hand, might feel a little differently -- for all the wrong reasons. The memories of epic collapses litter the short-term memory: Oklahoma State. Arkansas. Kansas State. And, perhaps most painfully of all, Texas.

The Aggies held solid leads and momentum in each game. And, in each game, they lost the momentum and the game. Fumbles, interceptions, penalties and bizarre playcalls all contributed to extraordinarily painful losses.

In 2011. This, however, is 2012.

The last time the Aggies turned the ball over six times, K-State buried them 62-14. The last time Dustin Harris muffed a punt? Texas. The last time an Aggie quarterback threw two picks? A loss. The last time Christine Michael fumbled? A loss.

All those things happened last night. And the Aggies won anyway. Anyone who thinks that would have happened anytime in the previous decade, please raise your hand so you may be drug-tested.

These aren't your older brother's Aggies. For that matter, they're not Mike Sherman's Aggies, either.

This is not a criticism of Sherman, who is a wonderful human being who deserves all the credit in the world for molding a lot of current and former Aggie football players into excellent human beings. But he wasn't a guy who translated well to the college game; he was a guy who had a very businesslike approach in a game that relies a lot more on emotion.

Emotion works in two ways in college football: it can work to help you win games, and it can run you right out of them. Kevin Sumlin knows this, and that's what makes him a very good coach at a very good time for Texas A&M.

I can't tell you how many times Sumlin has looked reporters right in the eyes (me more than once) and said "we have to take care of ourselves before we worry about anyone else." We heard it in the spring, we heard this summer, and at least twice at press conferences since the season started. What he means by that is really simple: he knew the team he had inherited was going into a deadly conference with a shattered psyche, and it was up to him and his assistants to repair it.

After last night, it's pretty clear he's doing a darned good job doing that. There was no better example of that than during the delay after Ole Miss challenged the ruling that placed the football inside the A&M one after Johnny Manziel -- who had showed some of the recklessness that put him behind Jameill Showers in the spring -- had been sacked.

A&M was down 10 and running out of time in a miserable, rainy and hostile environment. Sumlin waved his offense over, told them to calm down, keep playing and they'd find a way out of the mess they were in.

And they'd win. He believed it, so they should too.

Four players later, the Aggies were in the end zone, having landed their own death blow with Manziel's deep pass to Mike Evans on 3rd and 19. There was a team on the field that believed it could win, and a team that wasn't sure. The confident team, unlike last year, was wearing maroon.

"It doesn't matter if we're down two or down 21, we're going to keep playing," Stewart said. "We don't quit."

Sherman wouldn't have not called the team over, and he wouldn't have not talked to them. But the confidence that Sumlin showed and verbalized wasn't there. There was always a little feeling of doubt, which his players locked on to. With Sumlin, you believe the man could be looking down the barrel of a gun in a Las Vegas alley and he'd still think he'd find a way to win.

On the field, he's calm and cool and confident. His defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder, is pretty unflappable. And nobody's more chill than Kliff Kingsbury, as Aggie fans know from nightmares from the early 2000s.

Last night, we saw what happens when Sumlin gets off the field after being as calm as Joe Gibbs in a preseason game: he runs in the locker room, shoves players and throws Gatorade around.

The players love it. They gravitate to it. And it makes them put their faith in the man who leads them.

Last night, Texas A&M saw a team wilt under pressure when the other team kept coming. They saw a defense fold; they saw a team turn the ball over when it couldn't afford to and saw a coach make completely inexplicable decisions that cost them the football game.

In 2012, they're the team benefiting from those blunders, not the team making them. There's a lot of credit to be spread around, but the change in atmosphere begins at the top.

After the game, senior linebacker Sean Porter had no question about where the game ranked in his book.

"That," he said. "Was the best win of my career."

If Kevin Sumlin continues to connect with his players the way he has so far in 2012, the Aggies may see a few more like it down the road.

Texas A&M NEWS


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