Northwestern led 7-3 early in the second quarter before A&M reeled off 27 straight points to take a decisive lead and then fight off a late rally to capture its first bowl victory since 2001.
Texas A&M broke a five-game bowl losing streak in a win the team dedicated to fired coach Mike Sherman and offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio, who was killed in a car accident last week.
Malena ran for 77 yards, filling in ably for Cyrus Gray, who missed his second straight game with a stress fracture in his left shoulder.
Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, a span of nine losses.
A&M won a bowl for the first time since a 28-9 victory over TCU after the 2001 season. That also came in Houston, when this game was called the Galleryfurniture.com bowl and played next door at the Astrodome.
The Aggies were up 30-7 before Brian Peters intercepted Tannehill early in the fourth quarter and the Wildcats took advantage of that mistake when Kain Colter scored on a 1-yard run for Northwestern's first points since early in the second quarter. The 2-point conversion left A&M ahead 30-15.
Colter found Tim Riley in the corner of the end zone for on a 2-yard touchdown pass to get Northwestern within 30-22 with less than six minutes remaining.