OXFORD, Miss. — As time ticked off the clock at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with the Texas A&M football team nursing a 10-point lead, freshman linebacker Andre White Jr. barreled into the backfield and pulled down Ole Miss quarterback Matt Carroll down for an 11-yard loss.
On the scoresheet, the play will seem miniscule. But it was the performances of a few fresh faces like White’s that helped the Aggies seal a 24-17 victory in the Southeastern Conference matchup Saturday.
A rash of injuries throughout the week of practice left A&M’s defense depleted. Defensive end Michael Clemons and defensive backs Charles Oliver and Keldrick Carper all missed Saturday’s game due to preparation injuries, head coach Jimbo Fisher said. In their stead, several young players such as Brian Williams, Devin Morris and White took valuable snaps throughout the game.
“That’s why your freshman and all those young guys ... they’ve got to keep developing as the year goes on, because you're going to need it, especially in a league this physical,” Fisher said.
Along with White’s sack, Morris had a key tackle for loss on third down in the third quarter.
But A&M’s defense also showed its inexperience, allowing 250 rushing yards and a total 405 yards to the Rebels (3-5, 2-3). It’s the most rushing yards the Aggies (4-3, 2-2) have allowed under defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
Ole Miss’ ground-game onslaught started early with running back Jerrion Ealy. The freshman took a stretch play around the left side and blasted into the end zone from 69 yards, breaking tackle attempts by cornerback Myles Jones and safety Demani Richardson. The scamper gave the Rebels a 7-3 lead, answering A&M’s 24-yard field goal by Seth Small.
Quarterback Kellen Mond regained a connection with junior wide receiver Kendrick Rogers, hitting the receiver on an 18-yard out route in the end zone to give A&M a 10-7 halftime lead.
Mond finished 16-of-28 passing for 172 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw two interceptions. The junior also rushed for 76 yards on 15 carries.
Ole Miss took back the lead on a quick, five-play drive to open the second half, capped by a 2-yard TD run by running back Snoop Conner with 13:30 left in the third quarter.
A defensive score then got the Aggies back in the drivers seat. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and cornerback Elijah Blades ripped the ball from quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, and linebacker Buddy Johnson caught the ball on a bounce and ran 62 yards untouched to put A&M ahead 17-14 with 7:37 left in the third quarter. It was A&M’s first fumble recovery for a touchdown in conference play since 2012.
Defensive back Clifford Chapman also added his first career interception. Injuries and absences have seen Chapman’s playing time increase over the last two games.
The Aggies added the winning score on a seven-play, 55-yard drive late in the fourth quarter. Mond’s 12-yard run set up running back Isaiah Spiller’s 22-yard TD run with 2:34 left. After disappointing performances in early SEC play, the freshman back led A&M in rushing with 78 yards on 16 carries and scored his first TD since the Aggies’ win over Lamar on Sept. 14.
The A&M coaching staff has put an emphasis on a trio of midseason games, beginning with Saturday’s trip to Ole Miss, wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon said. The win over Ole Miss paired with wins in upcoming games against Mississippi State and Texas-San Antonio will ensure a bowl trip for the Aggies this season.
“[Fisher] made this a big part of our season to find out who we are as a team,” Ausbon said.
While the Aggies are still trying to find their identity on offense, it is always important to nab a key SEC win with the youth of the team making an impact, Ausbon said.
“It’s good to see those guys and see that their reps in practice are paying off, and when their number is called, they’re making big plays,” he said.