ARLINGTON, Texas -- When the regulation clock hit triple zeroes and overtime awaited for Arkansas and Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon at AT&T Stadium -- the third time in four years these two teams required extra football to come to a resolution -- Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin had plenty to sort through, but he knew where he wanted the action: the west end zone.
"I knew that, if we had our druthers, we wanted to play on that end of the field," Sumlin said with a slight chuckle. "You probably know why."
The reason is two-fold: It's closer to the Texas A&M fans and band, giving his defense a noise advantage, and, well, the past two times the Aggies and Razorbacks battled in overtime there, it ended well for Sumlin's group.
On Saturday, it happened again.
The game included 93 points, 958 offensive yards, six lead changes after halftime, a missed call that cost Texas A&M four points, plus nine plays of 30 or more yards. The result was an Aggie escape out of JerryWorld with a 50-43 overtime victory, a win Sumlin desperately needed.
Consider: Before Saturday, the Aggies hadn't defeated a Power 5 conference team since Oct. 8, 2016. The disaster that was the Aggies' 45-44 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl to open this season -- in which Texas A&M relinquished a 34-point, second-half lead -- and two less-than-inspiring performances against Nicholls State and Louisiana in the following weeks left this game as a critical one for Sumlin and the Aggies. If they couldn't beat what appeared to be an underwhelming Arkansas team, how many wins were actually left on the schedule? And how much longer would Sumlin be around?
The Aggies' dramatic win over Arkansas won't completely stifle Sumlin hot-seat talk, but it might pause it for the time being. This young team -- with a true freshman, Kellen Mond, at quarterback -- is 3-1 and perhaps a play away from being 4-0, even if it has been less than aesthetically pleasing at times.
On Arkansas' sideline, coach Bret Bielema has endured similar talk but has enjoyed more administrative support than Sumlin. Where Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward spelled it out explicitly this offseason ("He has to win this year. He has to do better than he has in the past."), Razorbacks' athletic director Jeff Long publicly expressed confidence in Bielema's ability to win after their Week 2 loss to TCU and even fired back at a fan on Twitter, saying, "We are not a win at all cost program." What's more, Bielema's buyout ($15.4 million if fired before 2018) is more prohibitive at this point than Sumlin's ($10 million if he's fired after this season).
The criticism from Arkansas alumni and fans will likely only intensify, however, after the Razorbacks failed again to beat the Aggies, something they've been unable to do in the Bielema era. The Hogs are 10-23 in SEC games.
"It's unbelievable," Bielema said of losing in overtime to the Aggies for the third time in four years. "It's just gut-wrenching. ... It's hard because we put a lot into it and my kids put a lot into it. You get a lot of negativity, and I wish I could do something for them."
In the end, Sumlin sought out capable veterans -- junior receiver Christian Kirk and senior safety Armani Watts in particular -- to pull the Aggies through this one. Both came through in a big way.
Kirk finished with 246 all-purpose yards, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter and the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime, the second time he has done that in this series. Watts ended the game with an interception in the end zone.
"We've been in these situations before, in the same game," Kirk said. "Yeah, we've a lot of young guys, but we had enough old guys that have been there before and have been through it and able to set the tone and set the attitude. It was all smiles in that huddle."
Once the fourth quarter commenced, the fireworks really began. The Aggies took a 33-28 lead on a 44-yard touchdown run by Keith Ford, one in which he went untouched. Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen responded with a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Nance.
As if to one-up the Razorbacks, that's when Kirk struck with his length-of-the-field kickoff return.
By time the Hogs reclaimed the lead 43-40 with 3:39 to go, it was up to Mond -- the Aggies' true freshman who has been thrown into the ocean with no life vest thanks to injuries to their other two quarterbacks on the depth chart -- to lead the way. He did, carefully crafting an 11-play, 40-yard drive that included only two pass plays, that set up a game-tying Daniel LaCamera field goal to force the extra period.
Mond showed significant growth in the past two weeks. Against Louisiana, he was able to make throws downfield that he didn't in the first two weeks, and on Saturday, he led the Aggies on a game-tying drive in the final minutes to send the game into overtime. His running ability has always been known, but if the 2017 ESPN 300 recruit can continue to grow as a passer, the Aggies' offense has a chance to be good.
If not for an official's mistake, he would have had three touchdowns to his credit, and perhaps overtime wouldn't have been required. (Mond broke free for an 89-yard touchdown run, but it was disallowed because he was incorrectly ruled him out-of-bounds at the 10, and plays blown dead for out-of-bounds aren't reviewable.) Still, he finished with 216 passing yards, two touchdowns and led the team with 109 rushing yards.
Sumlin's Aggies -- once known for an Air Raid, throw-it-all-over-the-yard style -- are beginning to find an identity as a team that can really run the football. Three players (Ford, Mond and Trayveon Williams) ran for at least 72 yards.
There are a lot of issues with both of these teams. The Aggies and Razorbacks combined for 15 penalties, neither stopped the run particularly well, as each ran for more than 220 yards, and the Razorbacks allowed six sacks. Bielema says the Razorbacks' issues are all correctable. Sumlin said he's keeping the Aggies from focusing on the big picture.
"It's more about week-to-week and not what's out there in front," Sumlin said. "What I'm proud of is ... how these guys believe in each other and believe in the people in that room. And, because of that, because of their effort and because of their belief in each other, really, nothing else matters."