COLL EGE STATION Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel arrived Saturday at Kyle Field amid questions about his availability to play against Vanderbilt.
By the end of the first quarter in the the No. 16 Aggies’ 56-24 wipeout of the Commodores, the only question about Manziel and his ailing right shoulder involved how high he will climb in this week’s updated round of straw polls identifying the top Heisman Trophy candidates.
Manziel, who spent Monday’s practice with his throwing arm in a sling after sustaining an injury in last week’s loss to Auburn, erased any questions about lingering effects by completing his first 10 passes on the Aggies’ initial possession.
The last connection went for the first of Manziel’s four touchdown passes on a day when he reminded Heisman voters it is too early to dismiss the defending champion in a race that has seen Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston emerge as prohibitive front-runners in recent weeks.
Manziel, who fell to fourth among Heisman favorites — his lowest placement of the season — in odds released by Bovada Sports Book after last week’s 45-41 loss to Auburn, did everything necessary against Vanderbilt to close ground on those ahead of him despite not receiving the official thumbs-up as Saturday’s starter until pregame warmups.
Manziel threw for 305 yards, topped the 8,000-yard career mark in total offense and accounted for four TDs on a day when A&M sprinted to a 28-0 lead by scoring on its first four possessions.
The 2012 Heisman winner did the heaviest lifting during the game-turning salvo, completing 16 of 19 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns while directing scoring drives of 75, 66, 80 and 39 yards.
“My shoulder’s just a little sore. It didn’t cause me too many problems today, so that’s a positive,” said Manziel, who began throwing lightly on Wednesday but acknowledged his arm still is not 100 percent. “In my mind, I was always going to play. These guys expect me to be out there. To miss a game really wasn’t an option for me.”
But that option remained in the mind of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin after Manziel reported soreness following his throwing session in Friday’s walk-through. Sumlin said he arrived Saturday at Kyle Field and “really didn’t know if he was going to be able to play” until Manziel warmed up.
When did Sumlin realize he’d made the right call?
“When he went 10-for-10 to start the game,” Sumlin said.
During Manziel’s hot start, one of his three incompletions came on a drop by freshman receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez.
When the Commodores rallied to close the halftime deficit to 28-17, Manziel re-energized the attack after intermission and helped the Aggies (6-2, 3-2 SEC) secure their first home win of the season against an SEC opponent.
Without question, Manziel’s Heisman hopes will not be boosted if voters camp on the fact A&M suffered five turnovers (four lost fumbles, one Manziel interception) despite playing in sunny, idyllic fall weather conditions. But none of the fumbles were by Manziel and the interception came on a deflected pass, making Manziel the most efficient member of an A&M offense that rolled for 558 yards and topped the 40-point mark for the 11th consecutive time, longest active streak among FBS schools.
That should carry the day with voters wondering how Manziel would respond to last week’s physical and emotional setbacks. It definitely satisfied A&M coaches and teammates.
So did the performance of the oft-maligned A&M defense, which held Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4) to 329 total yards and recorded seven sacks, matching the Aggies’ season total through the first seven games.
For the first time this season, Sumlin said A&M had all five of its top defensive backs available to start in the same game. That stability in the back end allowed defensive coordinator Mark Snyder to call more blitzes, which he did with frequency and effectiveness against Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman making his first career start.
“I felt comfortable calling those pressures because I finally felt comfortable knowing everyone would be where they were supposed to be if I did that,” Snyder said.
The Aggies’ defense triggered the start of Vanderbilt’s second-half backslide. On the first snap of the third quarter, A&M safety Howard Matthews’ pick-six from 26 yards applied the brakes to the second-quarter momentum the Commodores built during a 17-0 surge to end the second quarter.
Manziel and the offense merely finished the job and did it well enough, despite a stretch marked by lost fumbles on four consecutive drives, that Manziel called it a day after throwing a 14-yard scoring strike to Derel Walker with 6:10 remaining in the third quarter.
Each of A&M’s backup quarterbacks, Arlington’s Matt Joeckel and Southlake Carroll’s Kenny Hill, led a touchdown drive while Manziel sported a cap after completing 25-of-35 passes, highlighted by a 43-yard scoring strike to Mike Evans and others covering 8, 7 and 14 yards.
Asked about the resilience of the Aggies’ starting quarterback, receiver Malcolme Kennedy said: “Johnny always does it.”
He did so again Saturday, boosting his Heisman hopes at the end of a day when even his coach questioned if Manziel would take the field.