It had all the dramatic ingredients needed for another Heisman-worthy chapter in the Johnny Manziel saga.
The gritty Texas A&M quarterback, knocked out of the game for one series after landing heavily on his right shoulder after a fourth-quarter scramble, returned to the Aggies’ huddle and scored the go-ahead touchdown in front of a CBS national television audience.
But this time, the Aggies’ defense rewrote the script. Instead of protecting a slim lead, along with No. 7 A&M’s hopes for continued relevance in the BCS national championship race, the defense allowed No. 24 Auburn to march 75 yards in methodical fashion for the game-winning points in a 45-41 thriller at Kyle Field.
When Manziel and his offensive mates moved into scoring territory in the final minute, the Auburn pass rush responded with two sacks on A&M’s last three snaps to snuff out the drive. Both were credited to Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, whose 22-yard sack of Manziel on fourth-and-13 from the Auburn 21-yard line kept the Tigers (6-1, 3-1 SEC) in the thick of the SEC West Division race and relegated the Aggies (5-2, 2-2) to long shots in the BCS bowl mix and SEC title chase.
Instead of continued chatter about a possible national championship and a second consecutive Heisman Trophy for Manziel, the talk in a somber Aggies interview room centered on resetting goals and making the most of the team’s remaining opportunities to try to match last year’s 11-2 record.
Without question, that looms as a tall task with road trips to No. 6 LSU (6-2, 3-2) and No. 14 Missouri (7-0, 3-0) left on the schedule. Especially if Manziel, who took treatment on his shoulder after the game but did not speak to the media, is forced to miss any games because of the ailment.
A&M officials offered no medical updates Saturday about their 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and Manziel showed no ill effects in his throwing motion after re-entering the contest. But the defense collapsed in crunch time, placing the Aggies’ season on the brink.
“This loss will determine what type of team we are,” A&M defensive end Julien Obioha said. “A lot of teams, after a loss like this, go straight downhill.”
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin praised the resiliency of Manziel, who threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns, as well as the competitive fire of receiver Mike Evans, who made 11 catches while establishing a single-game school record for receiving yards (287) and tying the existing mark for TD catches (four).
But Sumlin also said his team must “look honestly at where we are” after watching Auburn roll for 615 total yards, including 379 rushing yards — the Tigers’ top mark in SEC play this season.
That perspective proved very humbling for A&M defensive coaches, who saw Auburn erase a 34-24 deficit in the final 11:44 by cranking out touchdown drives of 75, 69 and 75 yards. With rare exception, Auburn pounded A&M between the tackles and the Aggies could not offer any resistance.
“Toward the end of the game, they put their big-boy pads on and we couldn’t slow them down,” A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “They knocked us off the football. It was very frustrating.”
It certainly flipped the script for Manziel, who injured his right shoulder on the first snap of the fourth quarter. That drive ended with a third-down incompletion by backup Matt Joeckel, followed by a field goal to give A&M a 34-24 edge.
Manziel also missed the next series, a three-and-out, before returning to the contest with 9:06 remaining. By the time he returned, A&M trailed 38-34. Under Manziel, the Aggies moved 75 yards in 12 plays for the go-ahead touchdown.
“There was no change in his demeanor,” A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy said of Manziel after his shoulder injury. “Johnny’s like Superman out there. I heard him talking to coaches, saying, ‘I gotta go in. I gotta go play.’”
But Auburn trumped Manziel’s comeback with a 75-yard scoring march of its own, followed by a defensive stand in the red zone — something A&M was unable to make — on the Aggies’ final drive. A&M’s defensive futility bothered Snyder.
“When you score 41 points, you should win. Period. End of story,” Snyder said.
But this is the second time this season that has not happened. A&M also fell to top-ranked Alabama 49-42 on Sept. 14. Because of its defensive deficiencies, A&M is out of any realistic discussions about an SEC title or BCS bowl despite an offense that has topped the 40-point mark in every game this season.
For that, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of a defense that allowed two 100-yard rushers (RB Tre Mason, QB Nick Marshall) and 6.3 yards per carry. Reflecting on last year’s 63-21 loss to A&M, an emotional Mason said he shed “tears of happiness” because his team had just won “a statement game.”
A&M, alas, also made a statement. And the Aggies allowed their leaky defense, not their record-setting quarterback, to have the final say.