College football’s most polarizing player stirred plenty of emotions in Saturday’s long-awaited return to action after a tumultuous off-season.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, made plenty of big plays, lifted the spirits of teammates and energized the crowd that watched the seventh-ranked Aggies survive a 52-31 shootout against Rice in Kyle Field.
But Manziel stirred an emotion in coach Kevin Sumlin that we’d not seen before, at least to this level: frustration.
Manziel, who sat out the first half because of an NCAA suspension for a rules violation committed while signing memorabilia in the off-season, earned a fourth-quarter benching for what Sumlin called “a foolish penalty” for unsportsmanlike conduct. Manziel, who jawed frequently with Rice players after entering the game in the third quarter, drew the 15-yard stepoff after his last of three touchdown passes, a 9-yarder to Mike Evans.
Sumlin also expressed concern about Manziel’s apparent signal to one Rice player that he would not be willing to give him an autograph — making the signing gesture as they separated — following a third-quarter play. Sumlin made it clear that Manziel, who was not made available for interviews by A&M officials, has work to do in the area of ignoring opponents’ taunts after making himself a target for them with his productive play on the field and his high-profile exploits off it.
“We’ve got to grow up and mature as a team, and individual acts like that hurt your football team,” Sumlin said. “I thought Johnny was pressing a little bit early. And a foolish penalty at the end.
“No matter what the comments are, he’s going to face that every week with people chirping. That’s not OK [to respond]. I addressed that on the sideline right after the play. It’s something he’s going to have to deal with every week.”
Asked if he’d planned to pull Manziel before his fourth-quarter penalty, Sumlin said: “Nope.” He also vowed to check out the videotapes of Manziel’s signature-related exchange with the Rice player.
“I will address that,” Sumlin said. “If I had seen it, I would have done something about it [Saturday].”
Sumlin had multiple reasons to be frustrated Saturday. He began the day by announcing two-game suspensions for four players, including three defensive starters. He ended it by benching his Heisman Trophy winner and watching two players ejected for second-half infractions that will prevent them from playing in the first half of next week’s game against Sam Houston State: cornerback Deshazor Everett (targeting) and linebacker Daeshon Hall (fighting).
Perhaps most ominous, Sumlin’s defense surrendered more yards to Rice (509) than his offense gained (486). The Aggies (1-0) escaped with a victory, remaining on pace for a Sept. 14 mega-showdown against top-ranked Alabama (1-0). But they were not nearly as crisp against a 27-point underdog as Sumlin had hoped.
“We have a lot of pieces that we can be successful with. But we had some guys get frozen up today and caught on their heels,” Sumlin said.
That did not happen to quarterback Matt Joeckel, a junior from Arlington High School who threw for 190 yards and a touchdown in his first career start. Joeckel, who completed 14 of 19 passes without an interception, turned matters over to Manziel with a 28-21 halftime lead.
Manziel, who passed for 92 yards and rushed for 19, took the field to thunderous applause and offered a salute to the A&M student section as he jogged toward the huddle.
Then, his emotions bubbled over, drawing sharp words from Sumlin and criticism from college football analysts. ESPN analyst Trevor Matich called Manziel a “selfish, unstable knucklehead.”
A&M teammates merely shrugged their shoulders and considered it another example of Johnny being Johnny, a fiery leader with lots of swagger that they love to follow.
Asked to grade Manziel’s debut, safety Toney Hurd Jr. said: “I felt like he represented himself with a nice swag. He came out and had fun. We got the ‘W’ and that’s what really matters.”
Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi concurred.
“That’s how he is,” Ogbuehi said. “He’s a fiery guy and that’s what we love about him. He’s not quiet. He’s not shy. He’s going to be loud and aggressive. That’s what makes him Johnny Football. We love it.”
But his coach would prefer if Johnny Football does not continue to morph into Johnny Rabbit Ears when opponents taunt him on the field. Manziel has made himself an easy target, a fact he acknowledged in July at SEC media days.
As such, he’ll need to do a better job of shaking things off when playing in more hostile surroundings than the friendly confines he enjoyed Saturday in Kyle Field. Sumlin acknowledged he needs to be part of the process, lest Manziel draw a game-turning penalty at the wrong time against Alabama.
“We talk about that in general all the time,” Sumlin said. “We have to grow and mature as a team, and that’s part of our jobs as coaches.”