STARKVILLE, Miss. — The bulk of Mississippi State’s defensive gameplan for Saturday is pretty simple: slow down Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The problem for the 17th-ranked Bulldogs (7-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) is there’s nothing simple about defending Manziel.
The No. 16 Aggies (6-2, 3-2) have the most prolific offense in the league, and the biggest reason is Manziel. The redshirt freshman leads the SEC with 99 rushing yards per game and is third with 277 passing yards per game. He’s thrown for 16 touchdowns and rushed for 13 more, helping Texas A&M score more than 45 points per game.
“Not only does he execute their offense very well but when you stop their offense he was the ability to go and create and improvise on his own outside of the box,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “He just starts running around and making things happen and he’s got great athleticism, tremendous speed and makes you miss.”
Despite Manziel’s success, there’s actually a decent blueprint on how to stop him. It was provided by Florida and LSU, which are the only two teams to beat the Aggies this season.
Mullen has watched the tape from those games.
“Yeah — they put a lot of those five-star players out there on the field and they just ran down right next to him,” Mullen said grinning.
Mississippi State might not have the same raw talent as LSU or Florida, but its defense has been nearly as productive. The Bulldogs have been especially good on pass defense, grabbing 12 interceptions and returning two of them for touchdowns.
“He’s an athlete playing quarterback,” Mississippi State safety Corey Broomfield said. “We played (Michigan’s) Denard Robinson about two years ago and coach came up with a great gameplan. We contained him. (Manziel) reminds me of him a lot — a guy who can run and throw. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but he does a lot of good things.”
He also has a short memory. Manziel recovered from a rough game against LSU on Oct. 20 — he threw three interceptions — to account for five touchdowns in a 63-21 rout of Auburn.
“He doesn’t let things like that bother him,” Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kilff Kingsbury said. “He corrected the mistakes. He knew what he could have done better. He goes right back at it. I’ve said from day one that he’s a fearless kid. Mistakes don’t slow him down. He’s going to go out there and play to win, and do everything that he can for his teammates to win the game.”
Now it’s time to see if Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell can bounce back after his first rough game of the season.
Russell completed just 15 of 30 passes for 169 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in a 38-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama. It was only Russell’s second interception of the season.
The 6-foot-4 junior is a more of a pure pocket passer than Manziel, and ranks fifth in the league with 1,742 passing yards.
Texas A&M players and coaches say they don’t expect Russell to have any sort of hangover.
“I think their quarterback’s playing really, really well. He’s operating within their system,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “He’s not turning the football over. He’s got a tremendous arm. The most impressive thing about this guy is that he stands in the pocket and takes the shot. We are going to have to cover a second and a half longer than we have all year long.”
Texas A&M will certainly be trying to get to Russell, considering rushing the quarterback is one of the things the Aggies do best.
Junior defensive end Damontre Moore is having a fantastic season, leading the SEC with 18 tackles for a loss, including 10 sacks.
Though the Aggies’ offense gets most of the publicity, the defense is quietly having a solid season. They’re giving up 22 points a game, which ranks seventh in the 14-team league.
“If you play hard and fast and everybody locks down on their keys, you can stop (Mississippi State’s) offense,” Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart said. “But if a couple of guys are not on the same page, then they can be a very explosive offense, as you can see with their record. They’ve only lost one game and it was to a very good Alabama team.”