Freshman QB Manziel has Aggies thinking big in first SEC season
You’re familiar with the narrative arc of a quality -- meaning unfailingly corny and poorly written -- sports movie.
In the first act, the young star races out to an unexpectedly brilliant start, breaking records while transforming from doe-eyed newcomer to his team’s cocksure centerpiece. Thus far, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s season has seemed like it was pulled from the opening pages of a such a script. His tale even comes along with a nickname -- “Johnny Football” -- that sounds like something a 130-pound screenwriter unfamiliar with the nuances of the neutral zone would’ve given to a quarterback played by Brendan Fraser in a ‘90s football flick.
Play Manziel’s first six games back in your mind and they look like a tried-and-true, overly-enthusiastic montage with “Push it to the Limit” thumping steadily in the background. There was the surprise coming-out-party against Florida in which Manziel came three points shy of toppling what is now the No. 2 team in the BCS. The Aggies lost, but everyone, Florida coach Will Muschamp included, considered it a win for “Johnny Football”.
That game paved the way for the five consecutive wins that followed, which were littered with highlights of Manziel outrunning defenders and outwitting safeties as his young, nervous energy transformed into the swaggiest of swagger. Along the way, he broke the SEC record for total offense in a game ... twice. In a 58-10 win against Arkansas, Manziel had 557 yards. In last weekend’s 59-57 thriller against Louisiana Tech he accounted for 576 of A&M’s 678 total yards, capped by a 72-yard sprint to the endzone that sealed the game. As the montage closes, our lasting image is captured as the quarterback trots those last few yards, two-arms aloft, index fingers pointed skyward in triumph as he’s swallowed by teammates ... “Push it to the limit ... limiiiiit!”
And ... scene. Now, it’s time to face Act II, young Johnny.
In every sports movie of this ilk, we’ve reached the point where our hero runs headlong into adversity. He crosses the neighborhood bully, the unstoppable force who knocks him around and drinks up all of that swagger like Daniel Plainview indulging your milkshake. Manziel, whose stats are so ridiculous for a freshman that they seem like they were penned by our diminutive screenwriter friend (1,680 yards passing; 14 TD; 3 INT; 676 yards rushing; 10 TD; 7.4 yards-per-carry), has to face that antagonist this week when No. 6 LSU heads to College Station. The Tigers bring with them the nation’s second-ranked defense, fully stocked with whatever’s larger than grown men, including all 13 feet and 500 pounds of sinew and spite that comprise defensive linemen Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. In our film, we see clips of the duo spending a week salivating over Manziel highlights and obsessing over getting their hands on the shifty quarterback as they do squat after squat after sweat-drenched squat (in an old, musty shed, of course).
Will Manziel stick to the script this weekend, succumbing to the ferocity of that defense while learning the requisite hard lessons and earning the necessary bruises on the path to superstardom? Or will he defy convention -- real and fictional -- and continue to play at a level we’ve seen few, if any, freshmen quarterbacks ever reach? The LSU game starts a gauntlet for Manziel: Mississippi State and Alabama await. Act two might be the obligatory trial by fire for our young star. There won’t be records broken against these teams. He might not win these games, but he’ll come out stronger. And by act three, whenever that may come, things looks like they’ll go quite well for “Johnny Football.”
At least better than they did for Brendan Fraser.
No. 2 Florida boasts the nation’s 19th-best defense against the run and 13th overall. No. 7 South Carolina is 20th-best against the run and 12th overall. Both teams can throw it a little, but need to lean on the run to move the ball against these stout SEC defenses. We know about how good Lattimore is, but Florida senior tailback Mike Gillislee came up huge in the win against LSU with 34 carries for 146 of the most agonizing yards ever travelled by anyone not named Andy Dufresne. This isn’t going to be a flashy SEC East showing featuring high-powered offenses and long plays. It’ll be a field-position battle, one that will look more like what you’re accustomed to seeing from LSU and Alabama, one that befits playing in a facility dubbed The Swamp. Everyone will get out alive, but someone’s national title hopes won’t. You know the stakes. You know how important this one is. So if you’re getting married or plan to have a baby on Saturday, call it off; Verne and Gary demand your full attention for this one.
The Heisman Trophy could be on the line when Collin Klein and K-State head to Morgantown to take on Geno Smith and West Virginia.That’ll be just as exciting, because the game pits No. 13 West Virginia’s seventh-ranked offense against No. 4 Kansas State’s 15th-ranked attack, with each being led by the nation’s Heisman frontrunners (no offense Brendan, uh, I mean, Johnny). But there’s more at stake than an edge in the race for that bronze statue. Kansas State is undefeated and controls its own fate in the Big 12, but West Virginia could surge back into contention after getting Tubervilled last weekend if they can somehow contain the Wildcats. No, I phrased that poorly -- the nation’s 117th-ranked defense isn’t going to contain Kansas State’s balanced attack -- that’s ludicrous. For West Virginia to win, it’ll have to do what it does best: score and score and score again, then score some more. Until the final bell rings, West Virginia can’t stop being as aggressive as possible on offense -- these Mountaineers are no counterpunchers. One team will emerge from the cage with the upper-hand in the race for the Big 12 title and one quarterback will surface as the midseason favorite for the Heisman.
The undercard for Saturday’s Big 12 heavyweight bout stands to be just as entertaining. No. 17 Texas Tech, fresh off being flogged by Oklahoma and flogging West Virginia, heads to Fort Worth to battle No. 23 TCU. The teams have ten wins between them and boast a pair of top-15 defenses. This will look nothing like what you’ll see in Morgantown, or pretty much anything else you’ve seen so far this year in the “defense strongly encouraged, but not required” Big 12. TCU’s freshman signalcaller Trevone Boykin will face, by far, the best defense he’s squared off against this season. Loss to Oklahoma aside, Texas Tech has quietly been one of the nation’s top teams; through six games, it remains the lone team that’s top-10 nationally in both offense and defense. But it’s in the midst of a tough run -- the game against TCU will be the Red Raiders’ third of five consecutive games against ranked opponents. If they hope to win more than they lose in that stretch, they likely have to take this one.
Oregon hasn’t fallen to Arizona State since 2004. Actually, that’s a gross understatement. The No. 2 Ducks have captured the last seven meetings by an average margin of 20.4, never winning by fewer than 11 points. So why am I excited about their matchup Thursday night? Because the Sun Devils are looking frisky for the first time in half-a-decade thanks to new head coach Todd Graham’s offensive scheme that has them scoring more than 40 points-per-game in their 5-1 start. No offense, Puddles, I didn’t mean to ruffle your Nike Pro-Combat feathers. (Yes, Puddles is the name of Oregon’s mascot.) Oregon is the best team outside of the SEC -- Puddles will still get a chance to do a bevy of pushups and I fully expect him and his feathered brethren to fly home with a victory, I just think this year’s contest will be more entertaining than the blowouts we’ve seen in recent years.
Well, after No. 14 Florida State and Clemson both lost early, there wasn’t much to talk about in the ACC this year. Still, I’ll give the other conference down south a little love here -- its two marquee programs are playing this weekend, after all. The ACC brought Miami (Fla.) aboard in 2004 in a move that seemed to add import to its already compelling rivalry with Florida State. But after both teams squared off through the late 1990s and early 2000s in games littered with future NFL players and dramatic missed-field goals, the rivalry hasn’t lived up to the conference’s expectations. This year’s contest is no different -- the rumbles in South Beach will barely register on the national Richter Scale. But there’s always something special about seeing green and orange clash with garnet and gold. Not to mention, both teams are 3-1 in the conference -- tied for the second-best conference record behind Maryland, yes, Maryland -- with a lot still to play for. Given Virginia Tech’s ugly start, this may be Florida State’s toughest test until its Nov. 24 showdown with the Gators.
What’s the number-one thing that service academies aim to instill? No, not bland hairstyles -- you can’t instill a haircut -- but good guess. It’s discipline! At Army, Navy and Air Force, players have to endure the rigors of the classroom, of physical military training, strict schedules and football practice. So, it should probably be no surprise that each of the academies are among the least-penalized teams in the game -- each ranks in the top-11 nationally in average penalty yards-against. Air Force and Navy are third and fourth, respectively, yielding only 26 and 27.2 penalty yards-per-game. Army is 11th, committing under five penalties a game for 35 yards. Navy, in fact, was the least penalized team each of the last three seasons.
Last weekend against Missouri, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron took a shot to the knee and had to be helped off of the field. It was a sobering sight for Bama fans who’ll accept nothing less than another national title and have already seen a few offensive players succumb to injury. McCarron came back into the game with a brace on his knee that he’s been wearing through practice this week. Fortunately, the injury is being reported as a bruise and he’s expected to play on Saturday. But it’s nevertheless disconcerting to see your quarterback step onto an opposing SEC field, as he’ll do in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium this week, wearing a big bullseye on his lower leg. Alabama doesn’t have to lean on its passing game, but still needs McCarron to be effective -- and, despite a winless conference start, those are still bona fide SEC defensive linemen in orange and white coming after him. If McCarron is tentative, Tennessee might be the first team to put even a mild scare into the Crimson Tide this year.
Speaking of Tennessee, if the Volunteers hope to salvage a tough season, I’d recommend that they get Mr. Swiss Army Knife Cordarrelle Patterson the ball as much as possible. I gave him a little love in the most recent edition of Breaking the Huddle for his performance against Ole Miss that included a kick return touchdown and a receiving score. “But give me more stats, Brian!” you implored. Ask, and you shall receive. A look at his first six games tells me that Tennessee has one of the nation’s most talented, versatile weapons. Patterson currently stands second in the nation in yards-per-touch among players who do more than return kicks, averaging 19.9 yards every time he gets his hands on the ball. He’s already garnered 214 yards on the ground, 315 receiving, 306 on kick returns and has six touchdowns spread amongst all three of those facets. He’s second-nationally in kick return average at 38.25 per-return. He’s averaging 19.5 yards-per-carry thanks to some nifty reverses -- guys that stand 6-foot-3 aren’t supposed to move like that. It’s in your best interest to get this man the ball as much as you can, Mr. Dooley, before he gets snatched up by the NFL.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
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