Apparently a one-half suspension didn't suddenly sap Johnny Manziel of his Heisman Trophy-winning abilities.
The controversial signal-caller was brilliant upon his second-half return, leading his seventh-ranked Texas A&M Aggies to a 52-31 win over the Rice Owls that was closer at points than the final score indicates.
Manziel, who entered during the Aggies' first possession of the second half, finished Saturday's season-opener at Kyle Field 6-of-8 passing for 94 yards and three touchdowns while adding 19 yards on the ground.
He created 10 points on his first two possessions, both coming off critical Rice turnovers. He was also his usual defiant self, jawing back and forth with Owls defenders and even throwing up the money sign after his first touchdown pass.
During the game, Manziel exchanged words with Rice linebacker Nick Elder following a run.
Elder took to Twitter after the contest to explain what happened:
@espn I was the one who johnny was talking too. He said "what's up nick, nice hit." True story— Nick Elder (@NickElder1) August 31, 2013
@j_marra04 haha I know him, I was just clearing things up...— Nick Elder (@NickElder1) September 1, 2013
Manziel took over at quarterback for junior Matt Joeckel, who went 14-of-19 for 190 yards and a touchdown in the first half. The game was Joeckel's first start of his career.
Heading into the game as nearly four-touchdown underdogs (h/t Bovada), the Owls were almost entirely secondary players to the Manziel scandal.
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner was suspended for the first half of Saturday's game amid allegations he received money for signing autographs for brokers. The NCAA later deemed Manziel innocent of those charges, but he was suspended for allowing his likeness to be used for promotional purposes.
The Owls made it clear from the outset that they wouldn't be folding in this high-profile contest—at least not in the first half.
Rice's offense took over at its own 4-yard line after a short opening drive from Texas A&M, but instantly struck on two gaping plays deep into the Aggies defense. Quarterback Taylor McHargue connected with Connor Cella on a 26-yard pass on the drive's first play, and then scampered for 57 more on a beautiful scramble down to the Texas A&M 8-yard line.
Charles Ross then punched it in on two consecutive runs, giving the Owls a 7-0 lead as the 12th Man looked on in a state of shock.
The Aggies quickly answered, however, going on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that finished in a four-yard Ben Malena touchdown. Malena received five carries on the drive, and Tra Carson three, as Kevin Sumlin made it obvious he wanted to bring Joeckel along slowly. Eleven of Texas A&M's first 15 plays—a time when teams are usually still in their "scripted" calls—were runs.
The ping-ponging on the scoreboard continued on Rice's next drive, which was set up by an excellent Mario Hull kick return. The short, five-play march concluded with a 19-yard touchdown pass from McHargue to Ross, giving Rice a 14-7 lead midway through the first.
That would be the way the teams finished the first 15 minutes, with both sides trading aborted drives and the quarter ending with Texas A&M marching down the field.
Joeckel, now seemingly entrusted by Sumlin with their backs against the wall, was the driving force behind a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a four-yard Carson run. He completed 5-of-6 passes for 56 yards, including a beautiful 26-yard connection with Mike Evans.
With the score tied, the Aggies were seemingly emboldened. They scored touchdowns on each of their second-quarter possessions, including a massive 71-yard touchdown pitch and catch from Joeckel to freshman Ricky Seals-Jones.
The Owls answered with one more touchdown drive of their own to finish the half, ending the first 30 minutes with a 332-315 advantage in total yards. But it was clear a seismic shift in momentum happened as the teams walked into the locker room.
The wheels came flying off the Owls offense to begin the second half. McHargue threw interceptions on the team's first two drives of the half, setting up Texas A&M in scoring position and leading to 10 points that opened up the game for a blowout.
Manziel entered the game after the first interception. Received to arguably the loudest cheers at Kyle Field the entire day, the Heisman winner didn't look fully comfortable at first. He took an opening carry 12 yards to the Rice 28-yard line, but then proceeded with a pseudo three-and-out that finished with a field goal.
The onslaught was on with his next drive, a 23-yard strike to Evans starting a succession of three out of four drives in which Manziel threw a touchdown pass. The last of those passes was another pitch and catch with Evans, this time of the nine-yard variety.
While the Owls made this game far more interesting than expected, Texas A&M outscored its opponent 24-7 with Manziel in the contest. With the season-opener out of the way and another easy win likely coming next week against Sam Houston State, perhaps the Aggies can put this distraction behind them and focus on their upcoming date with Alabama.
Matt Joeckel (QB, Texas A&M): A-
Considering the circumstances, Joeckel played about as well as anyone could have hoped. The junior signal-caller was ostensibly given the job of caretaker; the guy who was just supposed to keep the ship rolling until Manziel's pseudo-suspension was out of the way.
Instead, Joeckel made the most of his opportunity. He finished the first half completing 14 of 19 pass attempts, providing such a steady hand you would have sworn he'd done this before. The twin brother of former A&M tackle Luke, Matt had thrown exactly 11 collegiate passes before Saturday afternoon.
While he doesn't provide the combo air-ground game of Manziel, Joeckel did a nice job of proving the Aggies wouldn't fall off a cliff without their Heisman winner.
Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M): A-
Manziel's final stats in a vacuum look brilliant. He threw touchdown passes on half of his completions, looked solid scrambling outside of the pocket and continued his developing connection with Evans. All of that—plus the fact I adore his thumbing of the nose at the NCAA—should be enough to give Johnny Football a rubber-stamped "A" for this contest.
But I have to downgrade him at least a little bit for how he looked against pressure. Rice rarely blitzed the entire game, yet Manziel got happy feet at least twice on sacks that could have been prevented.
Nerves undoubtedly played a factor, even for someone who seemed so outwardly confident. I just can't totally sign off on a 4.0 GPA when those small mistakes could have been prevented, and drives possibly extended.
Ricky Seals-Jones (WR, Texas A&M): B
Talk about making an instant impact. Seals-Jones came to College Station with superstar expectations. A 5-star recruit with physical tools for days, the true freshman garnered multiple comparisons to Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson due to his combination of size (6'5", 230 pounds) and elite athletic ability.
Seals-Jones didn't do too much to quell the hype in his first collegiate outing. He beat his defender up the seam on a 71-yard touchdown pass from Joeckel, and then kept his massive body lumbering up the field and only getting caught as he crossed the goal line.
While that touchdown can be easily attributed to the blown coverage up the middle, Seals-Jones continued his overpowering performance throughout. With Manziel taking over under center for the rest of 2013, this should just be a preview of what's to come.
Texas A&M Defense: D
So much for the concerns about how the offense would do without Manziel, eh?
Rice had its way in the first 30 minutes on the ground, averaging 8.5 yards per carry and picking up multiple long gains. And had McHargue been a more accurate passer under center, it's arguable that this game could have been a lot closer even into the second half.
The Aggies were able to pour on the points and mask these deficiencies this Saturday. They'll likely be able to do the same in next week's cupcake against Sam Houston State. But with a clash against top-ranked Alabama in the offing on Sept. 14, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder better use that tune-up contest as an opportunity to fix his team's woes.
Taylor McHargue (QB, Rice): B-
Had McHargue not thrown those two critical third-quarter interceptions, it's very possible that the Owls would have pulled off college football's first major upset. Setting Manziel and the Aggies offense up deep in opposing territory is a death sentence. Those 10 points not only offered a big cushion on the scoreboard, but momentum for one of the nation's fiercest crowds.
Other than those mistakes, though, it's hard to argue that McHargue did a bad job. His first half was quite nearly flawless, carving up the Aggies through the ground and air in an almost Manzielian fashion. That 57-yard rush in the first quarter made him someone Texas A&M had to keep an eye on throughout the contest, which helped Ross find the second level on multiple runs.
Overall, McHargue finished the game 18-of-29 for 190 yards and two touchdowns against as many interceptions. Not a bad line whatsoever against a top-10 team, especially when you factor in his rushing total.
When you're trying for an historic upset, those interceptions just can't happen. It's McHargue's excellence that kept Rice in the game during the first half, but it's also his mistakes that put his club behind the eight-ball.
Charles Ross (RB, Rice): B
Three touchdowns and over 100 total yards against a top-10 team. Considering he had six scores all of last year and only four games with greater than 100 total yards, it's pretty safe to say Ross will sleep well tonight despite the loss.
Sleep well indeed.
Jordan Taylor (WR, Rice): A
This is the easiest grade of the entire game.
If you do this:
And then follow it with this:
A. Just A.
Rice Defense: D
We can't give the Owls a failing grade here, mainly because 10 of the 52 points they allowed were attributable to offensive mistakes. That said, they still gave up nearly 500 yards of total offense in a game where Texas A&M barely had the ball for 20 total minutes.
This was an expected result considering the talent disparity between the two schools, but if we're going to criticize Texas A&M's effort, turnabout is fair play.
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