Johnny Manziel is, without a doubt, must-see TV. He seems to be part Fan Tarkenton, part Doug Flutie, part RGIII, and part Houdini. The total package is one of a kind. So unusual, effective and mesmerizing is his style of play, that after only 25 college games, he was legendary. He seems to be on ESPN more than Tiger Woods was in the mid 2000’s.
He won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, mere months after barely winning the starting job at Texas A&M as a virtual unknown (at least nationally). He led his Aggies to a stunning defeat of mighty Alabama in Tuscaloosa to cap off his freshman regular season, and then toyed with the iconic Oklahoma Sooners in a bowl game, torching them for 41 points in a four touchdown victory.
He crushed the notion of a sophomore jinx this year – improving every facet of this technique over the summer – and gave notice early this year with more magic in an astonishing performance against Bama, albeit in a 49-42 loss to the Crimson Tide. He spent the afternoon carving up and trifling with Nick vaunted defense the way the best varsity athlete dominates high school gym class. He did the same to many SEC defenses, defenses that regularly lead to NFL careers. His combination of running and passing has garnered him all manner of SEC and national production records. He certainly holds the record for number of four letter words uttered by exhausted rush ends, as they grasped nothing but air, victimized by one of Manziel’s pirouette spins.
So it only makes sense that such a career peaks, and likely ends, against you know…Duke. Duke? Don’t believe it? Consider what Manziel said after the game: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before, EVER. I just wanted this game.” Did he say ever? Remember, this was from a guy who’s been in some amazing zones and wanted a lot of games very very badly. Yes, I understand this was one of those “instant classics,” as the Aggies had to come from 21 points down to win 52-48 in a game that featured well over a thousand yards of combined offense. It was also, as a New Years eve game, featured in every sports bar in the land.
But still. Duke? What in the name of Christian Laettner is going on around here?
What went on was one of those supernatural collisions between college football’s most compelling individual story and the games most fascinating team storyline – in a big-time setting and on a big-time stage. It was a match-up that the sports media wanted to hype – and yet was afraid to – given the notion that Duke might not be a worthy opponent. After all, when faced with this season’s Heisman winner, the Devils were outclassed 45-7 a few weeks ago. Thus, the buzz was just an invitation for the nation to tune in and see Johnny Football’s last college game. There was little promise that it would require his best.
And yet, it took every bit of his best, as Duke was more than worthy. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, heading to Florida next season, finally unleashed Anthony Boone’s big arm – Boone throws the bomb as well as anyone – for 427 yards. Duke also blocked a punt, recovered an on-sides kick, and rushed for over 200 yard en route to 661 yards of offense. A&M’s defense had been embarrassing all season, but the Devils savaged it for more points and more yards than anyone in the SEC managed to do.
Had the Devils not totally blown clock management at the end of the half – a bizarre goof considering how well prepared they were – Duke would have led 42-17 at the half and maybe been out of reach. But such a scenario would have deprived the nation of one final show stopping performance. Johnny Football started the rally with maybe his most stunning escape ever early in the third, which led to an easy 19-yard TD to Travis Labhart as the field was littered with horizontal white jerseys. That sliced the margin to two TDs, and the magic was on. Boone matched him for a while, completing ten straight third down passes for first downs, as Duke dominated time of possession.
But in the end, two interceptions, and Johnny Football’s offense, won the night. As Manziel said, the moment put him in a zone he had never been in before. Not against Bama. Not against Oklahoma or LSU. No, it was the moment against Duke. That’s part of the sorcery of Johnny Football, evelating Duke football, even as he broke their hearts.