COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It's easy to say there's a new attitude, a fresh outlook and changed ways when a new coaching staff takes over. It's often true initially, but that energy only takes you so far. Results are what matter.
Auburn's 45-41 victory over No. 7 Texas A&M on Saturday at Kyle Field very well could be something coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers point to as a seminal moment should Auburn ride this wave to something much bigger. This program isn't a stranger to success, having won a BCS championship in 2010, but it was a wounded one last year, stumbling through a 3-9 season that included some downright embarrassing losses and a winless SEC campaign.
The No. 24 Tigers (6-1, 3-1 SEC) have their swagger back, and a road win over a top-10 team and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to show for it.
"This win means a lot for our confidence," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. "We're fighting for different things now."
Make no mistake, Saturday wasn't a fluke. The Tigers are a good football team and showed it. Offensively, they ran up and down the field on the Aggies (5-2, 2-2), whose defense did little to stop them in crunch time. They finished with 379 rushing yards (178 for Tre Mason, 100 for quarterback Nick Marshall), and they threw it all right, too. Marshall, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, was masterful with the read option and made some big-time throws (236 passing yards, two touchdowns).
Defensively, they conceded quite a bit, as teams that play Johnny Manziel and the Aggies tend to do. That's the price of admission when playing Texas A&M. But the Tigers took advantage of opportunities when afforded them and created some of their own. They turned two first-half interceptions of Manziel into 10 valuable points. They sacked Manziel three times -- twice to help seal the victory on the Aggies' final drive -- and while he still got his, statistically, they pressured him and made him feel uncomfortable just enough.
"You have to try to bottle up the guy," Malzahn said. "He's phenomenal when things break down. In the fourth quarter, when he came back, I thought we were a little bit fresher there, and we made the two big plays toward the end."
The Tigers showed significant growth from their last tough road test at LSU on Sept. 21, which was their only loss of the year. Perhaps most encouraging, when Auburn needed a score late in the fourth quarter, it earned it. Marshall engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 3:46. The Tigers had three third downs and converted every one of them on the drive. There was no panic, no hesitation. Mason and Marshall set the tone with the running game, and when Marshall had to make a critical throw, he did, finding Marcus Davis for 27 yards to get the Tigers to the A&M 12.
It's the second game-winning drive engineered by Marshall, who also did it in a 24-20 win over Mississippi State last month.
"We were very confident going into that last drive," Marshall said. "We knew we had to get into the end zone to win this big game. That was our mindset, and we were able to execute."
For Texas A&M, it was another magnificent performance for two of its stars -- Manziel and Mike Evans -- but their magic made up for a lot of flaws. The defense is still poor. Only Western Carolina allowed Auburn to gain more yardage (615) than the Aggies surrendered Saturday. The 379 rushing yards allowed was a season high, far eclipsing the 306 the Aggies allowed to Rice in the season opener, when six key players missed all or parts of that game as a result of suspensions.
In their last two games, when the Aggies needed a late stop, they got it against both Arkansas and Ole Miss. Saturday they didn't.
"Towards the end of the game, they put their big-boy pads on, and we couldn't slow them down," Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They took the game and the clock from us, and we couldn't get off the field."
While the defense continues to struggle and needs work, there were other areas the Aggies made mistakes, too. Manziel's first interception went off the hands of tight end Nehemiah Hicks, the second one was simply forced by Manziel after he peformed a magic escape. The Aggies also were called for illegal formation in the second quarter, a penalty that nullified a third-down conversion in the red zone, which eventually forced a field-goal try rather than having a first-and-goal at the Auburn 7.
Texas A&M wasn't where it normally is on third-down conversions either, converting 5-of-13 (the Aggies came into Saturday's game converting 57 percent). And when the defense strung together four stops late in the second quarter and early in the third, the Aggies were able to put up only 10 points. But as Snyder said afterward, "When you score 41 points, you should win. End of story."
Still, Manziel and Evans were fantastic. Manziel came back from what appeared to be a right shoulder injury to try to lead the Aggies back and finished with 454 yards and four touchdowns passing plus a rushing touchdown. Evans continues to make his case as college football's best receiver, catching 11 pass for 287 yards and four touchdowns.
The Aggies would have needed help by way of a loss or two by No. 1 Alabama to have a shot at their primary goal, getting to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. This pretty much takes that off the table. How will they respond moving forward?
"What's important now is not what has just happened," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "At this time of year, teams go a couple different directions. We've got to get back in here Monday, be honest with ourselves, make sure that what we can fix, we're going to fix as coaches and players and move on."
But this was Auburn's day. They got a huge win, one that should be a big boost to Malzahn and his efforts to lead Auburn back to among the nation's elite. No more looking back for the Tigers, only forward.
"I was almost in tears after the game," Ford said. "Definitely seeing guys, especially younger guys, who didn't have a clue of what was going on last year -- and that was a tough time for them, and I had to kind of guide them through that process -- and to see the looks on their faces after the game, the hard work that we put in, and how we said, 'We're not going to look back, just keep moving forward,' it's definitely a powerful message that we've sent to the world."