Heading into Friday’s Texas Bowl, the Aggies were down to just one scholarship running back — true freshman Isaiah Spiller.
However, in a 24-21 win over Oklahoma State, the run game proved to be Texas A&M’s saving grace. Spiller led the Aggies on the ground for much of the game, finishing with 77 yards on 19 carries.
But he wasn’t the only freshman bolstering A&M’s rushing attack.
Wide receiver Ainias Smith filled in Cordarrian Richardson’s vacated spot, quickly climbing to 54 yards on seven carries. Smith also had 13 receiving yards on two receptions and two kick returns for 36 yards.
Smith has primarily served as a kick returner for the Aggies this season, but A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said his ability to step into the role of running back appeared to be a natural move for the freshman.
“That guy is a heck of a football player,” Fisher said. “You could play him at tackle, and I think he'd make a block. I think he could block a 300-pounder, I really do. I have the utmost respect for him. He's a natural back there. I think he did one heck of a job. He's a natural runner. He blocked well, he can catch the ball out of the backfield like you saw.”
Despite the success of the freshman duo, junior quarterback Kellen Mond was the star of the Aggies’ run game.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said Mond is a player his team had to gameplan for.
“[The running backs] have skill,” Gundy said. “They’ve got guys at wideout that can make plays. You have to watch the quarterback, he’s an issue.”
Mond’s performance earned him the title of MVP of the Texas Bowl, but his success didn’t come until the second half.
At halftime, Mond was 8-of-11 for just 35 yards. His passing performance improved only slightly in the second half, as he went 5-of-8 60 yards to finish the game with 95 yards and a touchdown through the air.
What earned the Aggies the win, though, was his ground game. Mond led the Aggies rushing for the fourth time this season with 117 yards on 12 carries.
Mond said halftime encouragement from his teammates gave him the push to finish the game strong.
“I have to thank my teammates,” Mond said. “They were the ones who kept me up at halftime. I was frustrated with myself, having two turnovers and I missed a throw to Ainias. [They kept] me up and Coach continued to encourage me to allow me to come out in the second half and lead us to a win.”
Almost half of Mond’s rushing yards came on a single play — a 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that gave the Aggies their first lead of the game.
Fisher said Mond’s ability to rebound from his struggles in the first half are a testament to his growth as a player and leader of the team.
“When you play quarterback, a lot of times when things don't go your way perfectly, it's easy to get frustrated,” Fisher said. “It's a great sign of maturity when you don't and you go back and do the things each and every play and give yourself and your team a chance to win when you're not playing your best. I like to measure players when they're not playing their best. Everybody's good when they're playing good. If you're not playing as good early and you're able to battle back and do things like that, that's that type of player.”