If Saturday marked the final appearance of Johnny Football in Kyle Field, as all indicators suggest, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner gave Texas A&M fans a swan song performance to savor.
Johnny Manziel, the face of college football for the past year, enhanced his stock in the 2013 Heisman race by throwing for 446 yards and a career-high five touchdowns while leading No. 15 A&M past Mississippi State 51-41 in the Aggies’ final home game of the season.
Manziel (6-foot, 210 pounds), a third-year sophomore who is eligible to enter the 2014 NFL Draft, has made it clear that his ultimate goal is to play at the next level and he is tempted to strike as soon as possible during a stretch when NFL general managers seem smitten with undersized dual-threat quarterbacks.
That is why fans showered him with chants of “One more year! One more year!” as the clock ticked down before a close-up of Manziel appeared on the Jumbotron. Manziel smiled and saluted the crowd, prompting raucous cheers, before exchanging an emotional, postgame hug with receiver Mike Evans, another third-year sophomore who could be NFL-bound.
Then, Manziel jumped into the stands to share the moment with Aggies fans.
“That was just the spur of the moment,” Manziel said of his Kyle Field rendition of a Lambeau Leap. “The way that the crowd acted in that last minute for me and Mike, and with the chant, and with the energy that they brought, it was a great way to end this year.”
Asked if he’d thought about the possibility Saturday marked his final game at Kyle Field, Manziel said: “Not one bit. I’m still trying to get us into a BCS bowl or the best bowl that we can possibly get to. That’s my only focus right now.”
That is what he said. But Manziel’s actions certainly looked like those of a player sharing one final farewell with an adoring fan base after he helped A&M build a 51-27 lead in the fourth quarter before withstanding a late MSU rally.
Manziel has talked frequently about his NFL dream, about his desire to be a first-round pick despite his less-than-statuesque frame. The success of Seattle’s Russell Wilson (5-11, 204) has opened that door. And Manziel showed how dominant his skill set can be at the college level while helping the Aggies (8-2, 4-2 SEC) maintain their longshot BCS bowl hopes.
He also flashed enough flaws — a season-high three interceptions increased Manziel’s total to 11, two more than he had in 13 games last year — to underscore why he lags behind Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in this year’s Heisman race.
But much can change from week-to-week in November. For proof, look no further than Thursday’s high-profile backslide by Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in a 26-20 loss to Stanford, which may have derailed his campaign.
At this point, Manziel has to be considered among the top two Heisman hopefuls. His three-interception effort will hurt his stock with some voters, at least until next week. But Manziel also threw three picks in last year’s 24-19 loss to LSU and still hoisted the Heisman.
So it’s not a campaign-killer, as long as the Aggies can win their remaining games against No. 13 LSU (7-3) and No. 8 Missouri (9-1).
As usual, Saturday’s bottom line offered more pluses than minuses on the Manziel meter. There were also some meaningful milestones.
Manziel threw his 31st touchdown pass of the season, breaking Jerrod Johnson’s school record (30) set in 2009. Manziel also established an A&M career mark for total offense (9,040 yards), breaking Johnson’s standard of 8,888. And his 47 rushing yards allowed Manziel (2,021) to join Bucky Richardson as the only quarterbacks in A&M history to cross the 2,000-yard career rushing mark.
Manziel called it “an emotional day, but fun.” Coach Kevin Sumlin, who declined to discuss speculation linking him to the Southern California vacancy, acknowledged plans to counsel Manziel and Evans with their NFL-related decisions after the bowl game.
“Those conversations will happen,” Sumlin said. “Those guys, they’ve meant at lot to us.”
Evans (five catches, 116 yards) did not speak to the media after the game but acknowledged the crowd during their “One more year!” chants. Whether those chants prove persuasive will become evident in January.
After the game, A&M running back Ben Malena, one of the team’s senior captains, simply was satisfied to revel in the fact that Johnny Football had made his final home game a magical one.
“You sometimes take it for granted playing with the best player in the nation,” Malena said. “His awareness, his elusiveness and his determination to win are remarkable.”
For A&M, the question is whether its Heisman Trophy winner just played his final game in Kyle Field. The postgame celebration, along with Saturday’s body language, suggests that he did.