What Johnny Manziel Did for Oklahoma

Oklahoma got a shot at Johnny Manziel in the Cotton Bowl last year, and it didn’t go well. It also left OU’s coaches and players in awe. During the post game interview session in several rooms on the ground floor of the place they call AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and we call Jerry World, OU coaches and players had nothing but superlatives for Manziel.

“He’s a videogame,” Casey Walker said. “He’s a videogame by himself.”

“Best player I’ve ever played,” Mike Stoops said. “He just does some many good things. He’s got magic.”

Oklahoma struggled to finish strong in 2012, and that’s being nice. This isn’t: The Sooners were nearly out-gunned by West Virginia, nearly lost a shootout to Oklahoma State and were steamrolled by a bigger, faster cockier Texas A&M football team led by the man folks in Texas hill country call — and now half the college football world — calls Johnny Football.

Stop Johnny Manziel? You might as well try to stop an oncoming freight train carrying a load of dynamite with a pebble and slingshot.

Manziel, just a redshirt freshman quarterback then, dismantled Stoops’ defense in the 41-13 shellacking the likes of which the Sooners hadn’t received since, well, 2011. At Jerry World, Manziel hustled OU for over 500 yards of total offense — by himself.

He passed for 278 yards, ran for 229 yards rushing and accounted for four of Texas A&M’s five touchdowns. Stoops was still reeling from the loss at the beginning of the Sooners’ spring football practice last March.

Stoops was hired — after being fired as Arizona’s head coach — to put an end to embarrassments like this. But after giving up an average of 38.75 points per game to three Big 12 opponents and a middling Southeastern Conference team, there was work to be done by Stoops, a man who earned $600,000 in 2012 to coach football.

“We didn’t have all the answers that we needed,” Stoops said. “But beyond all that, it was the best offensive skill that I’ve seen in a long time in one conference and certainly adding A&M to the equation did us no favors.

“Maybe in the long run it was good. Maybe they exposed some weaknesses in our team and we’ll benefit from not being as good as we wanted to be and in the future we’ll be better. I look at it as a positive.”

He had to show something more in 2013 if he didn’t want to talk about what happened to his defense; why it wasn’t the same kind of tough, stingy stalwart he employed at the turn of the century.

***

Alabama coach Nick Saban lost to Manziel the first time he played him, and he nearly lost to him a second time last season. You could say there’s no one who better understands the gift Manziel has for winning than Saban, and he has given Manziel many a compliment in the past. But it’s one thing to say you think highly of a player into a tape recorder. It’s quite another for you to say the same thing while that player is next to you, on an ESPN set, on the night of the last Bowl Championship Series national title game.

Remember, one Heisman finalists and the 2013 Heisman winner were playing in that game, and one of them (Auburn running back Tre Mason) had already beaten Saban’s Crimson Tide just over a month before BCS championship game. Also, remember Alabama has put more players in the NFL over the last five years than perhaps any other.

When the 2013 NFL regular season began, 35 former Crimson Tide players, including one Heisman winner (Mark Ingram) were listed on NFL team rosters. Of those 35, only five hadn’t played a season for Saban — Roman Harper, Jarrett Johnson, Evan Mathis, Le’Ron McClain and DeMeco Ryans. Every other one — from Andre Smith, to Javier Arenas, to Dee Milner — played for Saban. But for Saban, Manziel was still a cut above the rest.

“This guy right here is one of the greatest competitors in all the years I’ve coached — in 40 years of coaching — that I’ve ever had the opportunity to play against,” Saban said.

***

Manziel lost his first game as a college quarterback.

His numbers after losing a close game, 20-17, to No. 24 Florida weren’t terrible, but they weren’t outstanding either. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 173 yards and rushed for 60.

His only touchdown of the game came on an 11-yard run during the second quarter. Then he beat up on an average Southern Methodist team and ran South Carolina State into the ground at Kyle Field. Over those two games, Texas A&M scored 118 points and its defense gave up just 17.

The thinking then was any SEC team worth its grits should be able to win games by that kind of margin against teams outside the conference, especially teams as woeful as SMU and SCSU. But the SEC test had been administered early for the Aggies, and they’d been found wanting.

To many, the Aggies were still a Big 12 team masquerading like they belonged in the most dominant league of the past decade, and their quarterback hadn’t proven a thing. Then came the game against Arkansas at Jerry World.

The Razorbacks were coming off of three straight losses, but they had a quarterback. His name was Tyler Wilson. He’d shown exactly what he could do the season before. He’d thrown for over 3,500 yards with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He led Bobby Petrino’s squad to an 11-win season and a top 5 finish in the final Associated Press poll.

Standing 6-foo-3 and weighing about 220 pounds, Wilson looked like the goods. Before the season began, the talk was about how high Wilson might go in the 2013 NFL Draft and many believed his chances of winning the Heisman were good. The losses on Arkansas’ record that year — there were eight in all — were enough to quiet the Heisman talk. But heading into the game against Texas A&M, there weren’t many folks who thought Wilson wasn’t the better quarterback.

Then here came Johnny.

Wilson didn’t play badly. In fact, he played well*. It’s just that Manziel played better.

*He completely 29 of 59 passes for 373 yards, threw two picks and one touchdown

Manziel passed for 453 yards, rushed for 104, scored four total TDs and finished the game with a 202.5 passer rating. The Aggies beat Arkansas 58-10.

Later they’d win a barnburner against La. Tech 59-57, beat Auburn by six touchdowns on the road and give Alabama its only loss in a season when the Crimson Tide won the national championship.

The Aggies had a decent defense, but folks knew it was Manziel back there making things happen when the play broke down — and driving defensive coordinators insane — that returned Texas A&M to glory. Heisman voters gave him the sport’s most coveted trophy as a freshman and folks started counting down the days until he — not Tyler Wilson — could declare for the NFL Draft.

Over the course of his two-year career in College Station, Texas, Manziel accounted for nearly 10,000 yards. He ranks first and second in SEC history for total offense in a single season.

***

One year later, Manziel still gave college football’s best defenses fits. He didn’t beat Alabama in 2013, but he hung 42 on them. That total was the most the Tide gave up all season until it played Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

The Sooners beat up Alabama to the tune of 45 points with their own version of a point guard playing quarterback, but it was Mike Stoops’ defense that surprised. It forced turnover after turnover out of quarterback AJ McCarron and made a home in his pocket.

“Mike has brought, obviously when you watch us, great tenacity on defense in the way we play and compete,” said Bob Stoops after the Sugar Bowl win. “And I feel the sky’s the limit because nine of those guys are back next year. And we’re going to be better.”

The 3-4 defense designed with Big 12 speed and mobile quarterbacks like Manziel in mind had beaten the defending national champion in a game that has done more for the OU brand than any other in the last five years. Oklahoma owes a debt to Manziel for that, for showing it what a quarterback could be, for forcing it to rethink what it means to play defense. Without him, OU might have never been equipped for 2013.

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