If the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl turns out to be Johnny Manziel’s final college football game, no one can say he didn’t go out with a bang. In fact, in the waning minutes of the old year, Johnny Football lived up to his name, mounting the greatest comeback in Texas A&M history and leading the Aggies back from a 21-point halftime deficit to beat Duke by a final score of 52-48.
In the process, Manziel put on the kind of jaw-dropping individual display that has become his trademark.
"Unreal," Manziel said when asked to describe the game in the minutes immediately afterward. "It’s definitely an NCAA instant classic."
No one would disagree.
He threw 30 completions for 382 yards and was the Aggies’ leading rusher with 73 yards. But, beyond the numbers, it was the way he played that made this game so extraordinary, rallying his teammates, the fans, and even the coaches in a way not seen since the halcyon days when Tim Tebow was widely considered the greatest college football player of the last decade.
"The biggest thing I kept stressing was don’t give up," Manziel said, although his delivery was quite a bit more flavorful on the sidelines. "We got down really big, but the main thing I kept stressing to everybody — offense, defense, special teams, whatever — was, don’t look at the scoreboard, don’t look up. The game is 0-0. I kept trying to reiterate to them that we worked hard, fought all year, and we just needed to settle down and make plays."
They were, indeed, down big. The first half was all Duke with quarterback Anthony Boone shredding the A&M defense and looking better than Manziel in every facet of the game. In the Blue Devils’ opening drive, Boone completed three passes for 45 yards and rushed for 16 more for what appeared to be an easy touchdown. And in the second possession, he completed consecutive passes of 32 and 37 yards to set up a relatively easy three-yard touchdown run.
In a sign of just how much Duke disrespected the A&M defense, in the final drive of the first half, the Blue Devils went for it on fourth down twice, once on their own side of the 50-yard line and again when they were in easy field goal range and up by 11. Both plays resulted in first downs, and the drive resulted in another Duke touchdown.
Jamieson Crowder became the first receiver in ACC history to haul in 100 catches, and his record-setter was a doozie, a 59-yard touchdown catch at the 11:50 mark in the second quarter. The Duke faithful, who made up about 60 percent of the 67,945 in attendance, went bonkers.
They had every right to be excited. Duke hadn’t won a bowl game since John F. Kennedy was in the White House. For many, this was like seeing Haley’s Comet, something that had never happened in their lifetime and might never happen again.
But the fairytale was too good to be true and by the early minutes of the fourth quarter everybody knew it. Even though the Blue Devils still led by three and would extend the lead to 10 again with 6:37 to play, Duke fans looked like they were suffering through a Woody Allen film. They clapped at the right moments, but the thrill was clearly gone.
That was because everyone watching had seen some version of this movie before. It was Johnny Football’s master class and the rest of us were just along for the ride.
Love him or hate him — and there seem to be few who fall in between — Manziel took college football to another dimension. With the cool nickname, the sideline cheerleading, the helmet slamming, the get-in-your-face speeches, and the social media lifestyle, he became what the NCAA abhors: a nationwide celebrity, a reality-show superstar â¦ a brand.
None of that would have mattered if he didn’t continue to amaze, doing things that make him look like a character in a video game. His touchdown pass at 9:55 mark in the third quarter where he bounced off his own lineman, remained upright, spun and completed a 19-yarder to Travis Labhard rivaled the famous bouncing ball play from the Alabama game in 2012, and set the tone for the rest of the contest.
"We had a little play-action out-route bubble pass," he said. "I didn’t get a very good look. Tyrell (Taylor) told me it was an easy touchdown. I think the way things go down I could always make it a little bit harder.
"When I left my feet (just behind the line of scrimmage) originally, I thought I was in trouble because somebody from Duke was staring up at me. I don’t know what happened after that. I kind of shot backwards, bounced off of somebody, got out of there and looked up. And I saw Lab sitting wide open."
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin smiled and shook his head during this recitation. Then he said, "That’s coaching right there."
Manziel ran for another touchdown from three yards out after hitting receiver Mike Evans on a 25-yard pass play.
But none of his heroics would have mattered if the defense hadn’t finally stepped up and made a play on Boone and the Duke offense.
With Duke leading by three with 5:44 to play, Boone completed a 15-yard pass, followed by a five-yard run by Josh Snead to get the Blue Devils beyond the 50-yard line. Then, Boone ran to his right and tried to throw to the corner, but defensive back Tony Hurd stepped in front for an interception that he returned 55 yards for a touchdown.
One possession later, Manziel was kneeling in the victory formation as the Aggies ran out the clock on the best pre-New Year’s Day bowl game of the year.
As for the future, Manziel still wouldn’t hint as to his plans, although he did make one statement that could be seen as a indication of his thinking.
"I feel like (Duke) dared us to beat them in one-on-one coverage," he said. "I know they like to play some man in the NFL, I know that. Our receivers ran some great routes and we just tried to put it on them as much as we could."
Put it on them he did. Those who were there got to see something really special. If it does, in fact, turn out to be Manziel’s last college game, they also got to see history. And they will remember it for many, many years to come.