COLUMBIA, Mo. — Johnny Football was going to take it all away.
This improbable season. The trip to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference championship game. The top-five national ranking.
Article continues below ...
All of it.
Saturday night’s sellout crowd of 67,124 at Memorial Stadium watched as Missouri’s seven-point lead disappeared on a nine-play, 98-yard touchdown drive by Texas A&M early in the fourth quarter.
Johnny Football had done it again.
But then something funny happened.
The Missouri defense took over.
Yes, the same Tigers defense that couldn’t hold on to a 17-point lead in the final minutes against South Carolina in late October. The same Missouri defense that had been stingy for all but a few minutes over the first 11 games and for much of Game No. 12.
After Texas A&M tied the score at 21-21 with 10:43 remaining, the Tigers’ defense answered the bell and shut out the Aggies on their final three series.
Henry Josey busted loose for a 57-yard touchdown run with 3:34 remaining and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel took care of the rest.
Texas A&M 21.
“If you can hold Texas A&M to 21 points, you’re playing pretty good defense — without question,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “And that’s probably an understatement.”
Johnny Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, completed 24 of 35 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown and ran 11 times for 21 yards. His 195 passing yards and 124.8 passer rating were his second-lowest of the season.
Missouri chased him around all night with its impressive collection of defensive ends — Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and Markus Golden and Shane Ray — and the defensive backs, led by cornerback E.J. Gaines, were strong enough in coverage to limit Manziel’s options.
“We were relentless, in just the effort. Relentless,” Pinkel said. “Our defensive line wanted him so bad. They wanted a piece of him every chance they got. And he’s a great, great player. I’ve been doing this for a long time. John Elway was always, I thought, probably the best college player that I’d ever seen. This guy, he’s had one or two games in 24 games that have not been up to par. The rest he changes games. We did a great job. I think we got him off sync a little bit.”
The Tigers’ defense was at its best during Texas A&M’s final three possessions, holding the Aggies to one yard on nine plays.
That’s three three-and-outs.
With the game on the line.
With everything on the line.
“With their front seven, there’s a reason they lead the league in sacks,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We weren’t able to move the ball quite like we needed to in order to be effective and (Missouri’s defense) had a lot to do with that.”
In the final three series, Manziel completed two out of six passes for three yards. He was hurried on his four incompletions, by Golden, Ray, Sam and defensive tackle Lucas Vincent. He also ran for negative-two yards, stopped behind the line by middle linebacker Andrew Wilson on a first-down scramble.
“We knew they had a great player in Manziel and our key was to keep him contained, which we did,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “He made a couple big plays, but we also made a couple big plays on him.”
The Tigers might have also squashed Manziel’s Heisman hopes in the process.
Manziel didn’t meet with the media following Saturday’s game.
Instead, A&M wide receiver Travis Labhart talked about him.
“He’s such a competitor,” Labhart said. “He’s our team leader, and he’s always going to take losses tough. A lot of the times, he takes a loss tough because he thinks it’s on him. He’ll bounce back like he has all year.”
As Labhart spoke, fans and Missouri players were still scattered across Faurot Field, the sound system at Memorial Stadium playing “Georgia On My Mind,” an ode to the Tigers’ next game.
A few minutes later, it was “We Are the Champions.”
It was that kind of night.
Thanks to the Missouri defense.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.