COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tight end Jace Sternberger knew plenty of people were waiting for No. 22 Texas A&M to fall apart after its surprisingly strong start.
The Aggies showed Saturday they’re not going away any time soon.
Sternberger had seven catches for 145 yards, Kellen Mond threw for 353 yards and Seth Small had four field goals as Texas A&M held off South Carolina 26-23.
Sternberger had heard too many comparisons with past Aggies teams who opened strong, then faded as the Southeastern Conference season wore on.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves this week,” he said. “We knew everybody was waiting to see how we were going to respond.”
The Aggies answered with a winning final quarter after squandering a 16-0 second-half lead.
“We were going to get over that hump and we were able to show that today,” he said.
There are several more tests ahead for Texas A&M (5-2, 3-1), including road games with Mississippi State and Auburn and closing the regular season against LSU.
For now, though, the Aggies displayed the grit and resolve essential to succeed in the SEC.
“We’ve got some guys with heart and toughness, I can you that,” first year Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The Aggies won their third straight this season and moved to 5-0 against the Gamecocks (3-3, 2-3) since joining the league in 2012.
Mond also had a 4-yard touchdown pass to Sternberger in the second quarter and, when Small hit a 32-yard field goal on the Aggies’ first drive of the second half to go up 16-0, it looked like more than enough to put away the Gamecocks, who managed just 102 yards of offense the first 30 minutes.
That’s when Jake Bentley, returning after missing last week’s win over Missouri with a knee injury, led a pair of third-quarter TD drives — and the two-point conversions both times.
Bentley had a 22-yard scoring pass to Shi Smith to start the comeback, then hit Chavis Dawkins for a 33-yard touchdown throw off a flea flicker.
Bryan Edwards caught both two-point tries, stretching second across the line before falling out of bounds to tie the game.
Texas A&M responded with the winning drive next time out, moving 45 yards to set Small up for a 39-yard field goal with 9:16 left.
The Aggies sealed things with Trayveon William’s 3-yard scoring run with 1:36 left.
South Carolina got a final TD pass from Bentley to Samuel with 48 seconds to go, but could not execute an onside kick attempt. Texas A&M ran out the clock.
Mond got the Aggies going when he found his big tight end Sternberger. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior had a 53-yard reception where he dragged safety Steven Montac (some 65 pounds lighter) about 25 yards inside the South Carolina 10.
Asked if he’d ever carried a player that far, Sternberger joked, “Just my little brother.”
Small opened Texas A&M’s scoring with a 52-yard field goal, the freshman tying his career long kick.
South Carolina struggled with Bentley back behind center in the opening half. The junior, talked about at times this season as an NFL prospect, was 6 of 17 passing the first 30 minutes for 46 yards. He had an awful interception in the end zone to kill off the Gamecocks best scoring chance of the half.
“We didn’t take advantage of opportunities,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said.
Mond was 25 of 37 passing. His 353 yards was the second most of his career after throwing for 430 yards in a 28-26 loss to No. 4 Clemson last month.
(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)