Texas A&M pulled off the upset of the 2021 college football season -- and one for the history books -- on Saturday night as it took down No. 1 Alabama, 41-38, in front of 106,815 fans, the second-largest crowd in Kyle Field history. The outcome marked Alabama coach Nick Saban's first career loss to one of his former assistants as Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher delivered on his May vow to the Houston Touchdown Club that the Aggies would beat the Crimson Tide under Saban.
A last-second 28-yard field goal by Seth Small cemented the outcome, but it was quarterback Zach Calzada who was Texas A&M's hero. Calzada led the Aggies on their game-winning drive after suffering an apparent injury while throwing the game-tying touchdown on the team's prior possession. The redshirt sophomore turned in what amounted to a legendary performance after his play was heavily scrutinized in his first three starts following an injury to the team's original starting quarterback Haynes King. Calzada completed 21 of 31 passes for 285 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
The loss is Alabama's first to an unranked opponent since 2007, which was Saban's first season leading the program, and it snapped the program's 100-game winning streak against unranked foes. The Crimson Tide entered as 17.5 point favorites but were in trouble from the jump as Texas A&M opened up a 24-10 halftime lead behind a rejuvenated offensive attack. From there, it was a matter of holding on for dear life and rallying late, as the Aggies scored the final 10 points and improved to 4-2 (1-2 SEC) with the victory.
Calzada put TAMU on his back
When King went down early in Texas A&M's game against Colorado on Sept. 11, the Texas A&M offense changed, and not for the better. Calzada struggled in his first three-plus games as the Aggies' quarterback. Entering the Alabama game, he'd completed just 53.9% of his passes with four interceptions. Of his five touchdown passes, three came against lowly New Mexico.
But Fisher had no alternative. The backup for Calzada is a freshman walk-on who had never taken a college snap. The Aggies had to ride with Calzada, even after starting out league play with listless offensive performances in losses against Arkansas and Mississippi State.
Calzada delivered Saturday in miraculous fashion, both in the first half and then again in the fourth quarter. After completing 16 of his first 17 passes, Calzada hit a cold stretch in the second half as Alabama rallied. At one point, he missed on seven straight attempts during the third and fourth quarters. But when the Aggies needed him most, he came through. Calzada found Ainias Smith for a 25-yard touchdown with 3 minutes remaining to tie the score at 38.
But he was hurt on the play and needed help leaving the field. Fisher followed him into the team's medical tent as the walk-on backup, Blake Bost, warmed up.
After the Texas A&M defense came up with a stop, it was Calzada who came out of the tent Willis Reed-style to lead the Aggies offense onto the field. From there, he passed and scrambled Texas A&M into field goal range for the game-winning kick as time expired.
Alabama's offense needs work
Alabama finished with 522 total yards as the trio of quarterback Bryce Young, running back Brian Robinson Jr. and receiver Jameson Williams each posted big numbers. But when the Crimson Tide needed execution most, they didn't get it. The most glaring example came in their last substantial possession in the waning minutes when the Crimson Tide went three-and-out. Even a single first down and then a punt would have given Texas A&M less clock -- and a longer field.
Another example of Alabama's shaky execution came when the Tide settled for a field goal after facing a first-and-goal from the Aggies' 3-yard line with under 10 minutes to play. Trailing 31-27, it appeared they were about to surge ahead for the first time since the first quarter. Instead, the Tide settled for a field goal without attempting a single running play, despite being within spitting distance of the goal line.
Though it will get lost in the shuffle of a wild finish, two first-half turnovers also crippled Alabama. Young threw an interception in the end zone that ended a scoring chance early in the second quarter. Robinson also fumbled on Alabama's previous possession, which set up a Texas A&M touchdown. Without those miscues, Alabama may have found itself in a totally different ballgame once the fourth quarter arrived.
Give Texas A&M's defense credit
A unit that has been forced to carry the entire Texas A&M team for much of the 2021 season finally got some help on Saturday. But the Aggies defense still deserves some serious credit for keeping Alabama from opening the floodgates. In particular, four sacks of Young put the Tide behind the chains.
Alabama also dominated the time of possession in the second half, which forced the Aggies' defense to spend a lot of time on the field. On the end, they had the stamina to make plays when it mattered most. Statistically, this defense isn't quiet on its 2020 level, but it showed Saturday that it's still an excellent unit.