ATLANTA – Julien Obioha watched intently as an animated Johnny Manziel marched back and forth on the sideline during the first quarter of Texas A&M’s game against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Moments after the Blue Devils had prevented the normally prolific Aggies from reaching the end zone for a third straight series, a fiery Manziel got in the face of several teammates as A&M stared at a 14-3 hole early in the contest. Obioha, a sophomore defensive end, could tell Manziel wasn’t pointing fingers. Instead, the electric quarterback, playing perhaps his last game in a Texas A&M uniform, was demanding accountability.
“Johnny’s always been a leader,” Obioha said, “and it was basically him saying, “We’re not going to go out like this. We need to come back. This has to be a team effort.’”
Just as he’s done for the entirety of his remarkable career, Manziel lit a fire under his fellow Aggies. The redshirt sophomore made a handful of Manziel-like plays and a much-maligned defense stepped up with two late interceptions to help Texas A&M overcome a 21-point halftime deficit and stun Duke 52-48 in the Georgia Dome. In what many expect to be the final chapter for one of the most exciting players to ever play college football, Manziel refused to close his storied career with three straight losses.
“I just said, ‘Don’t quit.’” Manziel said of his sideline plea. “We got down, but I kept stressing to everybody – offense, defense, special teams – not to look at the scoreboard. ‘Don’t even do it. There’s no reason to do that.’”
Speaking to reporters after the game, Manziel, who finished 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and a bowl-record four touchdowns along with 73 rushing yards and another score, couldn’t put his team’s season-ending performance into words.
“It’s unreal,” he said. “I know the way these guys fought. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.”
The Aggies looked poised for an upsetting end to their season early in the Georgia Dome. Texas A&M’s offense, which came in ranked sixth in the country in scoring (43.6 points per game) and fourth in total offense (538.2 yards per game), was stuffed on a third-and-19 try on its opening drive. The Aggies missed a 55-yard field goal only to watch the Blue Devils march downfield and reach the end zone on an 11-yard pass from quarterback Anthony Boone to Josh Snead.
A&M’s next two drives resulted in a field goal and a punt. Meanwhile, Duke coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper had the Blue Devils ripping through the Aggies’ porous defense. Duke scored a touchdown on its first five drives of the half, converting two fourth downs on the fifth possession en route to the end zone. In all, Texas A&M allowed the Blue Devils to reel off 10.1 yards-per-play in the first half. By all accounts, this was not the same Duke squad that suffered a 45-7 loss to Florida State in the ACC title game.
Manziel and the Aggies faced a 38-17 hole as they headed into the locker room at intermission. They’d already lost two straight games – at LSU and at Missouri -- to close the regular season. This time, they’d make the necessary adjustments.
“We had a discussion at halftime about doing your job,” Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Don’t try and do everything. Do your job.”
Thanks in part to the sideline plea from its Heisman-winning leader, Texas A&M was a different team in the second half. The Aggies’ defense stuffed Duke on fourth down on its first possession in the third quarter. A&M then kicked off the first of three straight scoring drives with a wild 19-yard pass from Manziel to wideout Travis Labhart. The play was vintage Manziel as the quarterback bumped into his own linemen in midair, escaped to the left and dumped the ball off to the former walk-on for the score. “I guess the way things go,” Manziel said of his free-wheeling style, “I like to make things a little bit harder.” Joked Sumlin: “That’s coaching.”
But the defense also turned around its sorry first-half effort. The Aggies had clawed back to a 48-45 deficit with just over three minutes to play when defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. picked off Boone at the A&M 45-yard line and returned it 55 yards for the go-ahead score, the team’s first lead of the game. A&M coaches could hardly keep the team’s sideline off the field as they burst into celebration. Yet on the Blue Devils’ next series, Boone moved the offense into A&M territory before being pressured into a second interception – this time to Nate Askew – to seal the game.
Just as Manziel demanded, the second-half surge was a team effort, with contributions from Hurd and wideout Derel Walker (six catches for 113 yards). Even Labhart, a former walk-on who used to practice on the scout team for the A&M women’s basketball program, chipped in three touchdowns on only seven catches. But Cutcliffe’s been around the block long enough to know who really sparked the Aggies’ New Year’s Eve turnaround.
“I can’t imagine [Manziel] could play much better than he played today,” the Duke coach said. “He was special, and just like we know, he was able to create plays.”
Manziel notched three of his team’s touchdowns in the second half and shook off the prospect of ending his career on a sour note. The redshirt sophomore lost his shot at a second straight Heisman thanks to forgettable performances against LSU and Missouri at the end of the regular season. But Manziel managed to put those losses in the past and write another potential ending to his story in the Georgia Dome. He didn’t become the second two-time Heisman winner, but he refused to end the year as a loser.
On Tuesday, Manziel wouldn’t address whether he’ll leave school early to pursue the NFL. That decision will come at a later date. But when asked to describe his career – if the bowl victory indeed marks the end -- Manziel was blunt.
“Unreal,” he said. “…It’s unreal how things have played out in my career so far at A&M. It’s been a blessing to have guys like Coach Sumlin and Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury and the entire offensive staff that do such a great job.
“More than anything, I’m just extremely proud to have played with this offensive line… just everybody on offense the last three years. They’ve helped me get to where I am today. Without them, I wouldn’t be anything.”
Manziel’s affect on A&M has been palpable. His emergence as a starting quarterback with the Aggies formed a perfect storm with Sumlin’s arrival and the program’s move to the SEC. Now, the university is fundraising at record levels and making monumental changes within athletics, such as the $450 million renovation to Kyle Field. None of that would be possible without Manziel. For the program, he’s been a game-changer both on and off the field.
If he departs for a pro career, Texas A&M will miss Manziel, but so will college football. Few players could match his unique wizardry between the hashes as he took the SEC by storm. But his relatively short career would have been just long enough to leave a lasting impression on the sport. “He’s the best college football player ever, I believe,” Obioha said. “That’s what he’s been, the best college football player ever. Texas A&M’s been lucky to have him.”