COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Kelly Bryant had to wait even after the game.
He waited during the game, too, relegated to a sideline observer, replaced by a player three years younger, a kid without any real college playing experience. He waited for long stretches of the second quarter, and he waited in the third quarter as well. And now, minutes after Clemson secured a wild, dazzling road victory at Texas A&M, Kelly Bryant found himself waiting again, this time for ESPN to return from commercial break, the network’s reporter, Maria Taylor, standing at his side and a clunky camera in his face near midfield.
And then the wait was over. He smiled for the live feed, said some football clichés and raced toward the locker room, and that’s when it came out, emotion bursting from an emotionless man, a right hand raised to thousands of orange-clad fans hanging down above him as he raced into the tunnel, all of them pouring themselves out after their quarterback engineered a third-quarter rally that’ll keep the Clemson Tigers No. 2 in the land.
The wait isn’t completely over. After a 28–26 holy-cow, did-you-see-that victory in front of more than 100,000 mostly maroon-clad yellers, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney revealed that this quarterback rotation between Bryant and Trevor Lawrence will continue. Kelly and Trevor. Bryant and Lawrence. Grizzled veteran and hotshot freshman. Dual-threat QB and pro-style passer. “Yeah, as long as they play well,” Swinney said in response to a question about the continuation of the rotation. “We want to continue to get Trevor in the game. He’s a special talent, but you’ve got to love what you see out of Kelly. He’s locked in in what he’s doing.”
But all of this quarterback talk can wait. Let’s get to the are you kidding me facts: Texas A&M, a near two-touchdown underdog with a first-year coach and an unproven play-caller, nearly clipped Clemson. And should it have? The Aggies missed a 26-yard field goal and had another blocked. Their backup quarterback threw an interception while threatening to tie the game in the third quarter, and—of all whiffs, this was the worst—their receiver fumbled into the back of the end zone on a potential game-tying play with 2:13 left. “Tough breaks,” all of them, Swinney admitted afterward.
Another came moments later, when the Aggies reclaimed possession with 1:12 on the clock, drove down the field, scored on a tipped pass at the goal line and then failed to convert the game-tying two-point conversion. “It hurts,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “No doubt. They made one more play than we did in the game.”
Many of those came from the old man, Bryant, and not his heir apparent. Bryant drove the Tigers to victory, leading two third-quarter touchdown drives, dropping in 50- and 40-yard deep balls and scrambling plenty with his feet. Bryant started the final six series of the game, getting the crunch-time snaps in a rocking venue and squeezing his grip around the starting job when it seemed to be slipping away. Lawrence, in fact, started six of Clemson’s first nine series and tossed a 64-yard touchdown on his first play of the game early in the second quarter. But yes, the old man returned.
“There’s something about Kelly, his experience, his moxie,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “Kelly’s kind of that road warrior. I believe that Kelly thinks what he’s been telling y’all—he focuses on himself. Doesn’t worry about [the quarterback rotation].”
There was another quarterback in this one, a third guy who nearly led an inconceivable comeback. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond introduced himself to the college football world by carving through the Tigers’ secondary for 430 yards and three touchdowns, showing why he beat out Nick Starkel in a camp battle. Sure, Clemson found its senior starter, but the Aggies uncovered a sophomore sensation, the foundation, even Swinney admitted, that Fisher can build his big maroon house upon. “When I watched him on tape, I said, ‘This kid’s got a lot of moxie. He’s going to be a tough out,’” Swinney said, “and he was.”
This turned into a gun-slinging boxing match, not between Kelly and his young teammate, but between Kelly and Mond. They traded second-half jabs in the form of deep balls and needle-threading touchdown strikes. Mond followed Kelly’s two third-quarter drives with two of his own, hitting on perfectly placed passes of 69, 40 and 21 yards and capping the scoring stretch with a 14-yard touchdown toss to make pull within 28–20 with 14:07 left. “Kellen Mond has come alive!” ESPN color analyst Kirk Herbstreit announced to a national audience during the broadcast.
Has Jimbo got his quarterback already, the one that’s supposed to lead his new program to a title, the reason behind his millions and that long, long contract? Is he already this close to toppling the giants of college football, from inching closer to a second national crown? Either way, it seemed like the biggest, baddest moral victory you’ve ever witnessed, with Aggies fans chanting “Jimbo” as he walked off the field—after, we remind you, a loss. “We always felt like we can do this, but I think we kind of proved that tonight,” Mond told reporters afterward.
Meanwhile, Kelly Bryant might have more waiting to do, but on this night he bucked the latest youthful trend in college football and in society in general. In Tuscaloosa, at another championship contender, the younger QB has prevailed, but not here, not now at least. And this isn’t like the tension-filled QB battles so common at the college level. These guys are friends. They roomed together Friday night at the team’s Texas hotel, they high-five on the sidelines and share information on defensive formations. “We want the best for each other,” Lawrence said. “He took over at the end of the game and I cheered him on. We just want to win.”
So how does this rotation work? Ahead of kickoff, coaches reveal their plan at the position for the early portion of the game and then “it’s just ‘whoever’s got the hot hand and playing well,’” Lawrence said.
In the end, the veteran had that smoking gun, and he learned something from all that waiting, too. “[I] stayed poised,” he said, almost surprising at himself. “I talk about it, but when you actually go through an experience like that, it tells you a lot about yourself.”