Johnny Manziel shines, defense struggles in A&M’s win over Sam Houston State

Texas A&M completed the undercard portion of its 2013 football season with a knockout performance from its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and another standing eight-count administered to its suspension-riddled defense.

That makes it impossible to declare that the seventh-ranked Aggies, who never trailed in Saturday night’s 65-28 victory over Sam Houston State in Kyle Field, are ready to rumble with top-ranked Alabama in next week’s heavyweight brawl between September front-runners in the SEC and BCS title races.

It’s also impossible to rule them out. Call it a split decision.

What is clear is that the Aggies (2-0) have plenty of offensive upside and that quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, squeezed in plenty of football drills between his off-season visits to NBA playoff games, rap concerts, casinos and other destinations.

In his first start of his sophomore season, Manziel — relegated to second-half duty in last week’s opener because of an NCAA suspension — threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for 36 yards and directed an offense that never punted while he was in the game.

The Aggies finished with 714 yards (8.2 per play), including 444 in a high-octane first half that included 55 plays. With Manziel at the helm, the Aggies gained 618 yards in 10 possessions and scored seven touchdowns.

“He’s the best player in the country,” said A&M receiver Mike Evans, who grabbed a game-high seven passes for 155 yards. “And having him on the field for two halves is great.”

Manziel called it “an emotional deal for me” to have a productive first start in 2013 and to address teammates at the conclusion of his drama-filled off-season and last week’s half-game suspension.

“To let them know I’m here and I’m focused on this season and I love each and every one of these guys that’s the message I was trying to get across,” Manziel said. “These guys mean the world to me. There’s so much other stuff that gets played on and is out in the public. But we know what is in this building.”

The A&M offensive players who left the locker room Saturday were outrageously effective against Sam Houston.

But the defense, which played without four starters and had a fifth sidelined until the third quarter because of a targeting penalty in last week’s victory over Rice, struggled to slow the Bearkats’ offense. A&M allowed touchdown plays of 75, 68, 33 and 11 yards. Sam Houston averaged 6.7 yards per snap — hardly an insignificant figure for an A&M defense preparing to face the nation’s top-ranked team.

“We had our moments. But we still gave up four big plays,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We can’t really do that. But it can be corrected.”

The Aggies struggled, in particular, against the ground game. Sam Houston State running back Timothy Flanders, a senior who is the school’s career rushing leader, rolled for 170 yards and two touchdowns. The Bearkats finished with 240 rushing yards one week after Rice posted 306 in A&M’s 52-31 victory last week.

Rest assured, Alabama’s ground game brings more to the table than Rice or SHSU, the losing team in the last two FCS national championship games. The Crimson Tide, which seeks to avenge last season’s 29-24 loss to A&M, has won the last two BCS national championships and will come in well-rested after Saturday’s open date following a 35-10 victory over Virginia Tech in the team’s opener.

A&M’s run defense, after consecutive blotto efforts while playing short-handed, will be at full strength for the first time this season in next week’s game. The Aggies had three defensive starters suspended against SHSU, opted to sit defensive end Julien Obioha because of a minor ailment and could not put cornerback Deshazor Everett on the field until the third quarter because of his targeting penalty against Rice.

Playing short-handed is one thing. But whiffing a tackle in space, as safety Clay Honeycutt did on Flanders’ 68-yard touchdown run, is something else. Aggies safeties have missed way too many tackles in the first two games. And there was a blown coverage Saturday that led to an easy 75-yard scoring strike from Brian Bell to Torrance Williams.

Sumlin and A&M players anticipate the return of the missing starters to make up for such gaffes against Alabama.

“To get those guys back in the huddle will be a big deal,” Sumlin said. “The experience factor will do a lot on defense and for our coaches. We won’t have to be as vanilla as we have been because of youth.”

Alabama, of course, will have to deal with Manziel, who threw scoring strikes Saturday to three different receivers: Sabian Holmes (27 yards), Ja’Quay Williams (20 yards) and Brandon Williams (10 yards).

The unanswered question is whether A&M’s offensive brilliance can trump its defensive deficiencies when it meets Alabama. A year ago, it did. But Round 2, in College Station, remains open to discussion because we have yet to see the Aggies’ defense at its best — or even close to it — this season.

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