TUSCALOOSA | Coming from one score down to beat LSU in a two-minute drill was one challenge.
Coming from three scores down against "Johnny Football" proved to be quite another.
The University of Alabama's 29-24 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday challenged the Crimson Tide's offense in an entirely different way than the test it passed in Baton Rouge only a week earlier.
A week ago, in a defensive struggle of a game, the UA offense had to muster one efficient two-minute drive in the final minutes to hold off LSU's upset bid. On Saturday, the challenge was stiffer, and ultimately too stiff.
With Texas A&M ahead 20-0 after a quarter, the Alabama offense needed near-flawless execution for the game's final three quarters to engineer this comeback.
It didn't happen.
But for all the attention placed on the first-and-goal situation that the UA offense squandered in the final minutes, it was the offensive inconsistencies in the first quarter that contributed as much or more to the loss.
"(It was) critical in this game to get off to a great start offensively. (Texas A&M) has scored on their first possession almost every time," UA coach Nick Saban said. "We were fortunate to win the toss, get the ball first, hopefully establish some momentum, keep the ball, move the ball, and we didn't get that done. That was something we really emphasized to our team in terms of how important that would be in this game."
While A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was forging an early 20-point lead, the Aggies defense stifled the Crimson Tide for a first-quarter shutout.
Alabama's first three offensive drives ended quickly, with a three-and-out, a four-play drive and an interception. "They came out in some looks we hadn't seen, really threw us off and threw me off," Tide center Barrett Jones said. "I didn't do a good job of getting us in the right protection schemes. ... They were doing some crazy things on defense."
The Aggies' early 20-0 lead was foreign feeling to every player on the Crimson Tide roster. Not since Utah pounced on Alabama for a 21-0 first-quarter lead in the 2009 Sugar Bowl had the Crimson Tide been behind by so many points. Not one player who saw action in that Sugar Bowl remains at Alabama today - a few fifth-year seniors such as Jones were redshirting at the time -making Saturday's comeback task a first for the players.
"Everybody on our team had something to contribute to us not having success today, starting with me," Saban said.
With the Southeastern Conference's most exciting young quarterback in Manziel, Texas A&M was a threat to extend the lead at any time, making the Alabama offense's margin for error razor-thin.
It had to score quickly after falling behind 20-0, and did so with 10:04 left in the second quarter to cut the lead to 20-7.
It had to score before the half to bring the deficit within a touchdown, and did so with an impressive drive that left TAMU with an unmanageable 19 seconds left on the first-half clock.
But the Crimson Tide also needed to close the game with yet another score, as it did against LSU, and this time there was no magic left in quarterback AJ McCarron's hat. An interception on a pass intended for junior Kenny Bell put an end to the comeback.
"It's just a quick play, a one-hit wonder, you throw it on three steps and it's just a play we repped over (in practice)," McCarron said of his late interception. "The guy just sat under it."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.