Throughout the college football universe, praises continue to flow for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel because he pushed the Alabama defense to the brink of the breaking point in Saturday’s showdown.
Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, topped Tuesday’s way-too-early list of 2013 Heisman front runners on the website Heismanpundit.com after throwing for a school-record 464 yards, with five touchdown passes, in a 49-42 loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide.
Rick Neuheisel, a guitar-playing former college coach turned television analyst, has become a YouTube sensation with his tribute song for Johnny Football, which debuted Monday on the Dan Patrick Show.
Against that feel-good backdrop following a loss, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin moved Tuesday to shift the focus. He called for a reality check, pointed out flaws that surfaced against Alabama — including a “reckless” Manziel completion celebrated by the masses but criticized by coaches — and vowed that all thoughts and discussions about the Alabama game must cease within the Aggies’ locker room.
Most important, he attempted to squelch any temptation by players to join fans and analysts in pseudo-celebrations of Saturday’s near-miss.
“Whether we had won or lost the game, that was going to be the message,” Sumlin said during Tuesday’s news conference. “We’ve got nine more games. Whether you’re mad or you’re ecstatic, you’ve got to move on. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Next up for No. 10 A&M (2-1) is Saturday’s nonconference game against SMU (1-1) at Kyle Field. If any contest on the A&M schedule screams out as a potential “trap” game from a mental perspective, it is this one.
SMU, coming off a bye week, figures to unveil lots of fresh offensive wrinkles and could make its season with an upset. A&M is coming off a gut-wrenching loss that damaged its SEC and BCS title hopes and faces its first road test next week against SEC rival Arkansas.
Logic suggests the Aggies will be tempted to look past the Mustangs, who enter as four-touchdown underdogs. Running back Ben Malena downplayed that line of reasoning, saying “it’ll be easier” to focus on the one-game-at-a-time coaching bromide because the Aggies realize another loss ends any realistic national championship hopes.
“It’s easier from the fact that we do have a loss now,” Malena said. “It’s a one-game season every week. And we have to prepare for it like it is a one-game season. This week, we’ve got SMU. We’re looking at it and we can’t let them knock us off.”
The Aggies’ weak spot, thus far, has been a rebuilt defense that ranks No. 112 nationally in yards allowed (489 average). The Aggies’ prolific offense, averaging 53 points per game, usually covers that shortcoming. But Sumlin knows it cannot continue doing so if too many turnovers surface. A&M had two against Alabama, both on Manziel interceptions.
A third potential pick, in Sumlin’s estimation, was narrowly averted when Manziel’s off-balance throw into coverage resulted in a 12-yard completion to Edward Pope on a third-and-8 play from the Alabama 34-yard line. To avoid the rush, Manziel faded 26 yards behind the line of scrimmage and threw the ball up for grabs before Pope snatched it away from teammate Mike Evans and a handful of Alabama defenders.
The play made every postgame highlight show. It triggered thunderous cheers from the A&M crowd. But on the A&M sideline, Sumlin cornered his quarterback and offered a lecture.
“As far as being reckless with the ball, that was definitely reckless at that point. So I said, ‘Hey, look, don’t do that,’” Sumlin said. “And he said, ‘It would have been as good as a punt [if intercepted]’”
“I said, ‘The problem is, you’re our last chance to tackle the guy [if there’s an interception] and you’re on the ground,’” Sumlin said. “There’s some things we need to clean up, some good and bad, with him and a lot of other guys. As far as being reckless with the ball, that was the one example on Saturday.”
But it’s the type of risk/reward throw that has made Johnny Football a Heisman winner, an Aggies legend and the subject of Neuheisel’s tribute song. Set to the tune of the Marty Robbins’ country-western classic El Paso, it touches on all aspects of Manziel’s college career and opens with a classic first stanza:
“Out in the badlands they call College Station,
Lived a young Aggie named Johnny Manziel.
Football and life to him were a bull ride;
He rode them both like a bat out of hell.”
Understandably, Manziel’s latest wild ride against Alabama is still earning him praise this week. His coach, meanwhile, is ready to focus on fixing the things that factored into last week’s loss so they cannot bite the Aggies again this season.