COLUMBIA — Johnny Manziel did whatever he wanted against Missouri in 2012.
It was as if the Texas A&M quarterback was a video game character. He changed direction in a flash, wiggling in between Missouri defenders to dart down the field for chunks of rushing yardage. He avoided Missouri pass rushers as if they were moving in slow motion. He kept plays alive by scrambling left and right, making downfield throws look easy. Manziel didn’t look like a freshman any more.
The points came in a hurry. By the end of the second quarter, the No. 9 Aggies were up 42-0, the crowd at Kyle Field was unruly, and the Missouri sideline was deflated.
Manziel could have stopped there, and the events that followed wouldn’t have changed. But he didn’t stop. He kept running around the field and making every throw look easy.
By the end of the night, Manziel had tortured Missouri players and coaches. On his final play of the night before being taken out of the game, Manziel appeared to be stuffed by Missouri’s defensive line. Instead, he fought through multiple tackles and reached the ball over the goal line for a touchdown.
The scoreboard read 59-23 in favor of Texas A&M, and Manziel had piled up 439 total yards and five touchdowns. Mercifully, he returned to the sideline, removed his helmet and took a seat on the bench for the rest of the night. He couldn’t stop smiling.
Missouri would score another touchdown, but it didn’t matter. The season was over for the Tigers, while it was just beginning for Manziel and the Aggies. First, a Heisman Trophy for "Johnny Football" — the nickname given to the freshman redshirt quarterback — and then a dominant win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Texas A&M and Missouri’s debut seasons in the Southeastern Conference couldn’t have been much different, and a lot of it had to do with Manziel.
Craig Kuligowski doesn’t like to think about that game. Missouri’s defensive line coach remembers the feeling as he walked off Kyle Field last year. He remembers feeling sad, not even angry, just empty and sad. Then he remembers going to get something to eat and seeing the highlights of the game on ESPN. One particular play made it hard for him to keep his food down.
“One of the plays went like 12 seconds or something,” Kuligowski recalled in disbelief.
Manziel danced around the pocket, avoiding tacklers as if they were statues. He made his way out of the pocket to the right side of the field before scrambling all the way back to the left side of the field and lobbing a touchdown pass to a wide open Uzoma Nwachukwu.
Reluctantly, Kuligowski went back to watch last year’s game again in preparation of Missouri’s game against Texas A&M on Saturday. Missouri’s coaching staff isn’t focused on it. In fact, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel says he won’t even go back and watch it. He’s seen it enough already.
“I think anytime things happen when you go out and get your ass kicked, you go back and evaluate — hopefully if you’re a competitor — so the next time you go out it doesn’t happen to you.”
More than anything, Missouri left College Station, Texas, humiliated last year.
“The thing that was so embarrassing about that was we had so many missed tackles,” Steckel said. “We make those tackles. Everybody’s singing a different song right now.”
James Franklin had two recordings waiting on his DVR when he returned to Columbia from Oxford, Miss., last weekend. The first was Missouri’s win over Ole Miss. The second, LSU’s win over Texas A&M in which LSU made Johnny Football look human for the first time all season.
Franklin always does this. He returns home from Missouri’s game, sometimes late at night, and watches football. Usually, it’s homework. He records his own team’s game and then he records Missouri’s next opponent. Saturday night was a little different. Franklin turned into a fan watching Manziel play.
“He is a playmaker,” Franklin said. “He will scramble around, and he will see someone down field and make some good throws. He has had some good runs. He is just explosive in every play, and you don’t know what is going to happen. It’s pretty cool to watch.”
Even in an off-game for Manziel, Franklin couldn’t help but admire the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, who still has a shot at repeating the honor this season. Last season, Manziel racked up a mind-boggling 5,116 total yards and 47 total touchdowns.
His rushing totals have dipped, but Manziel has gotten even better as a passer. He’s already thrown 32 passing touchdowns in 2013, six more than he threw in 2012, and if he gathers 170 passing yards on Saturday, he’ll pass last season’s total.
“He’s a better player than he was a year ago, and he won the Heisman Trophy,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “His pocket presence is excellent, and he reads defenses better. If you are defensive player, it’s definitely a challenge.”
Steckel can’t explain some of what he sees Manziel do on the football field. In some ways, Johnny Football is a magician. Few players have as much responsibility within an offense and handle it so well.
“If I have a vote, I’m voting for him for Heisman,” Steckel said. “If you guys are all knowledgeable, every media guy should vote for Johnny Manziel. What he’s asked to do with his feet and his arm and his brain is unbelievable to me. The guy is just an unbelievable talent.
“What they ask him to do, he’s the best I’ve seen.”
Pinkel didn’t hesitate to praise Manziel in his post-game news conference following Missouri’s 24-10 win over Ole Miss.
“We’re playing against the best player in the country,” Pinkel said of the upcoming game and Manziel.
Johnny Football is simple. Texas A&M’s offense is simple. At least, that’s what Steckel thinks. He’s not trying to be disrespectful. It’s just what he’s seen on video. He doesn’t expect to be surprised by anything he sees Saturday.
“They’re not really complicated; they’re exact,” Steckel said.
Nobody stops Manziel. Nick Saban and Alabama couldn’t do it. Neither Auburn. That’s the wrong word, Steckel says. Rather, it’s about slowing him down.
One team does have Manziel’s number. Two years in a row, Louisiana State University has managed to slow down Manziel like no other team in the country. So there must be a blueprint, right?
“I think LSU did a great job of executing their game plan,” Steckel said. “But if you study the video, I don’t think their game plan was much different than anybody else’s.”
It’s too late in the season for Missouri to drastically change what it does on defense. The Tigers can’t introduce new coverages in practice or invent ways to slow down the most dynamic quarterback in college football. It doesn’t work like that.
Neither does Steckel. His intensity level is cranked up, just like it always is. The bags under his eyes are proof. He worries about everything, watches as much film as time will allow and drills it all into his players.
“Stec is going to be Stec, man,” linebacker Darvin Ruise said. “Stec is always focused, driven. Everything is important. Everything is attention to detail. That’s how he’ll take a Murray State, and that’s how he’ll take a Texas A&M, so there’s no difference in our game plan.”
That’s especially important this week. No matter how you slice it, stopping Manziel is incredibly simple and seemingly impossible all at the same time.
“We want to tackle him,” Kuligowski said. “That’s our job. If he passes the ball, we want to hit him and tackle him. If he runs the ball, we want to hit him and tackle him. We’ve gone around about a thousand different ways, but it’s as simple as that.”
Poor tackling is what led to the embarrassment of last year’s blowout loss. Tackling was a running theme throughout Steckel’s answers at media day on Monday. It’s simple in its premise but much harder in the execution.
“Football is blocking, catching, running, beating your gap, tackling, being where you’re supposed to be,” Steckel said. “It’s the easiest game to know; it’s the hardest game to play.”
Billy Sims and Johnny Football have something in common.
Sims, a running back for Oklahoma in the late 1970s won the Heisman Trophy in 1978. The next season, he visited Columbia and played on Faurot Field. Manziel will do the same on Saturday, becoming the first reigning Heisman Trophy winner since Sims to do so.
Sims didn’t just show up and play another game on Faurot Field. He dominated the Tigers, rushing for 282 yards on 36 carries in a 24-22 Oklahoma win.
Missouri hopes Manziel doesn’t find that kind of success. He’ll be the best football player on the field, and when he visits Columbia, he will be the most famous person in town. His Heisman-winning season transformed him from a football star to a national celebrity. Every move he made in the off-season was scrutinized. Every tweet he sent out, every party he went to, every NBA game where he sat courtside. He left the Manning Passing Academy early; he plead guilty to an old misdemeanor charge; and a scandal broke out involving his autograph, which resulted in Manziel being suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s opening game.
That was the summer of Johnny Football. Somehow, despite the round-the-clock media attention, Manziel stepped foot on the field on Aug. 31 and did everything he normally does. He found running lanes, he threw touchdowns, and he let everyone know how great he was. He pretended to sign an autograph in celebration of a big play against Rice and pressed his fingers together as if sifting through dollar bills in the same game.
Somewhere along the line, Johnny Football became a spectacle, but he hasn’t lost anything on the football field. If anything, he's more refined as a passer and leader. As much as things pile up on him off the field, everything seems to go his way on it.
On Saturday, Manziel will be the biggest obstacle standing between Missouri and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. It’s all clutter, Pinkel said. The SEC Championship, Manziel, all of it. He’s great, and Missouri knows that. Even if everyone else will make the game about Manziel, Missouri’s locker room is trying not to.
“I’m not going to boost him up,” Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy said. “He’s a great athlete. We just have to go out there and do our job.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.