As he pondered the stakes heading into Saturday’s showdown at Tiger Stadium, Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin reflected on the venue’s “Death Valley” reputation.
“They say that’s where dreams go to die,” Sumlin said earlier this week. “We’re trying to keep our dreams alive.”
After four soggy, wind-chilled quarters Saturday, No. 12 A&M waved goodbye to its BCS bowl hopes and quarterback Johnny Manziel’s opportunity to win the Heisman Trophy in consecutive seasons.
No. 22 LSU erased any thoughts about either possibility in a November showcase game that was all Tigers, all the time in front of an announced crowd of 92,949 and a CBS national TV audience.
LSU dominated A&M in the trenches in a 34-10 romp, keeping Manziel in check better than any opponent in his college career and holding the Aggies 39.2 points below their scoring average.
Manziel, who entered as the NCAA’s most accurate passer (73 percent), completed a career-low 39 percent of his attempts (16 of 41) against an LSU defense that kept him under constant pressure. He was sacked twice and threw two interceptions, with each misstep drawing derisive chants of “Johnny Football” or a flash of Manziel’s signature “cashing out” hand sign from Tigers’ fans during the final stages of the fourth quarter.
A&M’s lone touchdown, Manziel’s 51-yard scoring strike to Derel Walker in the second quarter, merely cut into a 21-3 margin built by LSU (8-3, 4-3 SEC) while keeping A&M (8-3, 4-3) at bay during a scoreless first quarter that evolved into the Aggies’ lowest-scoring game in two seasons under Sumlin.
The 24-point setback marked A&M’s most-lopsided loss under Sumlin, as well as the first time the Aggies have scored fewer than 17 points in any game started by Manziel. The previous low came in last year’s 20-17 loss to Florida in Manziel’s career debut.
“We got punched in the mouth and it wasn’t fun,” Manziel said, summing up a day when LSU outgained A&M 517-299 in total yards. “We couldn’t get any momentum or anything really going. They came out and mixed a lot of things up and kept us guessing. They played a heck of a game defensively. They kept coming from different places and bringing some blitzes and really getting a free rusher at will.”
Manziel’s third-down scrambles (12 carries, 54 yards) rarely extended drives. A&M converted only 5 of 14 third downs, far below LSU’s 64.7 percent success rate (11 of 17). The timing of Saturday’s season-worst performance could not have been worse for a team that began the day with at-large BCS bowl hopes and a quarterback who had been gaining ground in recent Heisman straw polls after becoming the first freshman recipient in Heisman history last year.
LSU buried all of that, with quarterback Zach Mettenberger (11-of-20, 193 yards, 2 TDs) outshining Manziel while the Tigers’ ground game rolled for 324 yards and two touchdowns. After the doubly-disappointing setback, Manziel said he will turn his full focus to this week’s regular-season finale at Missouri. And nothing beyond that.
“We’ll see how we handle adversity,” Manziel said. “It’s not a time to get down on these guys and pack it in. We’re sitting here 8-3 and we’re in the SEC. It’s a tough league. So we’ve got to continue to get better and make sure it doesn’t go to 8-4.”
Although some fans may be quick to blame the A&M defense, Sumlin joined Manziel in citing a normally explosive offense that never ignited on a cold, gray day.
“We couldn’t make enough plays in the game offensively to get in a rhythm of any sort,” Sumlin said. “Our defense held up for a long time but eventually gave up a couple of plays that separated us.”
Manziel, who hit only 2 of 11 passes while working into a brisk north wind in the first quarter, downplayed any concerns about a sore thumb on his throwing hand as a factor in Saturday’s subpar showing. He called it an issue he’s battled “the past couple of weeks.”
“But that had nothing to do with how I threw. I felt like I came out and spun the ball pretty well,” Manziel said. “We just didn’t get the pitch-and-catch that we wanted. We had a lot of drops and a lot of incomplete passes on my part. As an offense, that can’t happen and come out with a good outcome.”
For A&M, Saturday’s outcome could not have been more devastating. The Aggies’ dual dreams died in “Death Valley.” Now, someone else’s quarterback will hoist the Heisman while another SEC team collects the at-large BCS berth that is not claimed by the league champion.
“This loss hurts,” said A&M defensive end Julien Obioha, one of six Louisiana natives who start for the Aggies’ defense. “I know a lot of guys on their team. I knew a lot of people in those stands. That was not the message I wanted to send.”
The same goes for Manziel. Only with higher-profile repercussions.