A&M's Most Important Wins: No. 6-7
No. 7 Texas A&M 36 Auburn 16, 1986 Cotton Bowl in Dallas
It had been a whirlwind November for the Aggies. What looked like another mediocre season at 4-2 in October turned into a dream season in November. The talented but young players under third year coach Jackie Sherrill grew up fast to finish out the regular season with five straight wins including three over the top ranked teams in the SWC…SMU (19), Arkansas (9), and Texas (18). The win over Texas was an emotional affair, with cotton balls filling the air above Kyle Field and pandemonium took over the campus and Northgate area after the game.
So even with a month to prepare, it would be understandable for the Ags to have a let-down on New Year's Day against the Auburn Tigers from the SEC. Auburn featured Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson who was the exclusive focus of the pre-game analysis and hype. Even though A&M was in the midst of its greatest run in a couple of decades, the team was ranked only No. 11 and Auburn checked in at No. 16. So CBS and Bent Musburger decided it would be the Bo Show. But something happened to change the tone of the telecast that day. It started with a bit of a programming glitch on the network's part. Either that or they thought the The Spirit of Aggieland was a cute, little 20 second fight song. Back in the 1980's, the Aggie Band waited for the players to come back onto the field before playing The Spirit, just prior to kickoff.
So both teams come out of the tunnel. They referees have the coin toss. The team captains shake hands and return to their respective sidelines, and CBS is live waiting for The Opening kick. Instead, with the cameras rolling, the entire Spirit of Aggieland is played with close-ups of the players, coaches, band, students, and Aggies fans all singing in unison. The referees, Auburn players, and the CBS national audience all patiently waited as the Aggies sang The Spirit which seemed at the time to last five minutes. Still before kickoff, a young sideline reporter by the name of Jim Nantz spends a minutes explaining to viewers the history and significance of E. King Gill and the 12th Man tradition.
While most A&M fans look back on the 1986 Cotton Bowl as the game the Wrecking Crew stuffed the game's greatest running back, it really wasn't the case. Jackson actually had over 200 yards of total offense. By his standards, 129 yards rushing on 31 carries was a below average day, but he also burned A&M's defense on a galloping 73 –yard screen pass that went for paydirt. Jackson had two TD's in the first half in a close 15-13 halftime lead for the Ags, but the Wrecking Crew stiffened at the right moments in the second half. With A&M clinging to a 21-16 lead in the fourth quarter, Auburn goes on a methodical, time-consuming drive from their own six-yard line down to the A&M five-yard line. It appeared the Tigers and Jackson had finally worn down the upstart Wrecking Crew defense and were poised to take the lead.
But in the greatest goal-line stand in Texas A&M football history, the Aggies stuffed Bo Jackson not once, but four straight handoffs between the tackles. To this day, every "There's a Spirit" pre-game video at Kyle Field features the fourth down stop of the greatest running back of our generation.
But what isn't told is that was just half the story. The Aggie offense couldn't do much backed up at their own goal line, and had to punt. Auburn was quickly back in A&M territory and faced another fourth and short conversion inside the Aggie 30-yard line. Auburn coach Pat Dye was stubborn and again sent his work horse Heisman winner into the line of scrimmage only to be rejected a fifth time.
From there, Kevin Murray and the offense closed it out. The 1986 Cotton Bowl was the coming out party for Bryan native Rod Bernstine who was converted from RB to TE and was one of the first speed athletes at the tight end spot that was a true receiving weapon. He torched the middle of the field for 108 receiving yards on six catches while Murray also hit young 3rd down RB Keith Woodside for several long screen passes and the clinching 9-yard TD pass to make the score 29-16 with two minutes remaining.
Domingo Bryant was named the most outstanding player for his two critical interceptions in the game. The win pushed A&M's final poll ranking to No. 6. With most of the playmakers coming back the following year, the national media took notice and included the Aggies on most preseason Top 5 lists with a few magazines placing the Aggies No. 1 for the 1986 season.
The Cotton Bowl win capped off the greatest turnaround season in memory. In October after a loss to Baylor, A&M donors were again questioning the direction of the program. Two months later Sherrill won A&M's first conference title in 18 years, dismantled a good SEC team with a Heisman winning running back, and had the program listed among the nation's elite for next season.
The Aggies were here to stay in the land of the "haves".
No. 6 Texas A&M 20 Texas 16, 1999 Kyle Field in College Station
From a historical football standpoint, there was not much significant about this game. The Aggies were finishing up a typical R.C. Slocum season in this era. Winning the seven games on their schedule they are supposed to win, losing in Lubbock which had become a habit, and getting crushed by OU and Nebraska by a combined 88-6 total. The Aggies did paste a weak Missouri team heading into the Texas game week, but with the Longhorns winning the Big 12 South and ranked No. 5, not many people felt the Aggies could knock off the rivals from Austin.
And then everything changed. The Aggie Bonfire collapsed and suddenly a football game seemed so insignificant. Looking back retrospectively with a football eye, I have no idea how the players were prepared to play this game. While students were still trapped in the rubble of logs, a majority of the team headed straight to the site to lift the heavy logs off the pile and practice was cancelled. Coach Slocum admitted years later that even when the team finally returned to practice, he had no idea how to coach in that situation. With the circus of national media, candlelight vigils, and the focus on the 12 students that gave their lives and the others that were still seriously injured in local hospitals, the last thing on anybody's mind was playing a football game.
But when the decision was made to play the game, the burden on the shoulders of the players must have been enormous. And although few people talk about it, Mack Brown and his team were put in a no-win situation as well. They showed compassion, and the usual emotional build-up to such a game just wasn't there. It couldn't be there under these circumstances.
As strange as the next few days were leading up to the game with no hate flowing and no bonfire burning, the atmosphere in Kyle Field on game day was surreal with the releasing of the doves and the missing man formation for the flyover. Nobody knew how to act. Do you stay solemn and respectful of those who died, or do you yell and make noise as usual. Gradually as the game got going, the fans realized that the game was a release…three hours to come together and let off some grief and take a deep breath. To their credit, the Texas fans(most of them anyway) realized this was not a day to stoke the fires of the rivalry. The Longhorn Band's rendition of Amazing Grace was both beautiful and appropriate for the occasion.
In regard to the game itself, it was the Jamar Toombs show. He ran hard and he ran with spirit. Coach Slocum put the ball in his hands and let him grind out the yards slowly. Toombs ran the ball a whopping 37 times for 126 yards. He did it mostly three yards at a time. It wasn't pretty, but he moved the chains and kept the Aggies in decent field position most of the day which gave the Wrecking Crew some breathing room. The average starting position for the Texas offense was just under their own 25 yard-line.
Still, the Aggies trailed 16-6 at the half. But the Wrecking Crew dominated in the second half, forcing five three-and-outs and until the game's final drive Texas couldn't manage a second half drive longer than eight yards. Meanwhile, the Aggies parlayed their good field position into a third quarter TD to close the gap to 16-13. Midway through the fourth quarter after pounding Toombs into the Texas line five consecutive plays, Randy McCown caught the Longhorn DB's cheating in and hit Chris Cole down the sideline for a 24-yard gain down to the 13. After another Toombs run, McCown threw to Matt Bumgardner's outside shoulder just inside the pylon for the go-ahead score.
Then, with under a minute to play and Texas driving in A&M territory, arguably the most memorable play in Texas A&M football history occurred when DB Jay Brooks blitzed and knocked the ball out from Major Applewhite. Brian Gamble recovered and when he got up from the pile, he dropped to his knees and looked to the heavens in what is the most recognizable image in the university's history to this day.
There were no long-term implications to this game. A&M continued to play in the shadow of Texas for the next 10 years, and Coach Slocum hung on another three seasons before being replaced by Dennis Franchione. But if there is a game that brings back strong emotional feelings, and memories that will be forever etched in every Aggies' mind, it was the 1999 Bonfire Game.
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