COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Johnny Manziel was finally back where he wanted to be Saturday, zig-zagging through Rice defenders in front of 86,686 fans at Kyle Field and in front of a national television audience.
It was the Texas A&M quarterback’s chance to answer for a tumultuous off-season that included numerous tweets that upset people and an NCAA investigation that could have submarined the national title hopes of the No. 7-ranked Aggies even before the season began.
But if you’re basing what Manziel will be like after what you saw in his NCAA-imposed half of play in Saturday’s 52-31 victory over the Owls, there may be more character questions looming about the sophomore.
Manziel, slated the play the second half after his ½-game suspension for an inadvertent NCAA violation, displayed some of the Heisman traits by throwing for three touchdowns. But he also showed some of the traits that have fueled an anti-Manziel faction, acting as if he was signing an autograph for a Rice defender and then getting an unsportsmanlike penalty following a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
That move led to Manziel sitting on the bench for the final A&M drive and led to his head coach and teammates to answer for Manziel following the game as he wasn’t made available to the media.
While Manziel was 6 of 8 passing and three of those passes went for touchdowns, it was once again what Manziel did when the football clock wasn’t running that stole the spotlight.
The Aggies know it could be this way throughout the season unless Manziel reigns himself in.
“He made a foolish play at the end,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “No matter what the comments are, he’s going to face that every week with people chirping. That’s not OK. Obviously I addressed that on the sideline right after the play. It’s something he’s going to have to deal with every week.”
Manziel was treated like a hero upon his second-half arrival. He entered a game A&M led 28-21 to a standing ovation and acknowledged the crowd with a wave. The Aggies kicked a field goal on the first Manziel-led possession.
He showed the good Johnny and the bad Johnny on A&M’s next trip. On a third-and-seven at the Rice 31, Manziel scrambled for eight yards. When he got up, he motioned to a Rice defender like he was autographing something.
Sumlin said he didn’t see that play but said he’d watch the game film. He said actions like that wouldn’t be tolerated. Of course on the next play, Manziel hit Mike Evans on a slant and Evans raced 23 yards for a touchdown.
Sumlin did see what Manziel did on the final A&M touchdown drive and that led to him going back to the bench. His second touchdown pass to Evans came on a 9-yard pass with 10:14 remaining in the game. After celebrating with Evans, Manziel started jawing with two Rice defenders and pointed to the scoreboard. That drew a penalty and a spot on the bench for Manziel.
He was one of three Aggies to get personal fouls called against him Saturday. Freshman Daeshon Hall was ejected for fighting and starting defensive back Deshazor Everett was called for targeting late in the game on a play that Sumlin challenged.
Manziel addressed the team Friday and told them how much he appreciated their support throughout the NCAA investigation. Sumlin said he didn’t feel any need to talk to Manziel before the game about what to expect.
Maybe he should have.
“You try to do everything you can to grow better people, better players and give your team the best chance to win,” Sumlin said. “Individual penalties of any kind, especially personal fouls, are things that can keep you from winning ballgames.”
As much fuel as Manziel gave his detractors Saturday, none of them were wearing maroon on the Aggie sideline. Manziel did provide a spark for the Aggies, as Rice went toe-to-toe with them in the first half and trailed by just one touchdown.
Manziel led the Aggies to scores on four of the five possessions he played in the second half.
To his teammates, his Friday speech was genuine and his Saturday performance was as expected – warts and all.
“That’s how he is,” junior offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi said. “He’s a fiery game and that’s what we love about him. He’s not quiet. He’s not shy. That’s what makes him Johnny Football so we love it.”