Over the last five games, against SMU, South Carolina State, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has compiled the following, truly ridiculous, stat line: 105-for-160 passing, 1,507 yards, 14 passing touchdowns, three interceptions, nine sacks for 61 yards, 8.6 yards per pass attempt, 65 carries, 677 yards, 10.4 per carry, nine rushing touchdowns.
The first part of that stat line is damn impressive. The second part makes Johnny Football unique: About 13 times per game, Manziel races for a first down. He had carries of 19, 20, 29, 33 and 38 against Ole Miss. He ripped off a 25-yarder and 48-yarder against SMU. He broke off a 52-yarder against Arkansas. And despite a hard-charging Louisiana Tech offense, he held the Bulldogs at bay with runs of 30 and 72 yards.
Sometimes he runs like one of those wild, wacky inflatable tube guys at car dealerships; other times, as in the game-clinching run against Louisiana Tech, he just commits to an angle, puts his head down, and runs really fast.
Manziel has lit a spark in college football fans, and it isn't hard to see why. He is enjoyable in so many of the ways that the young Brett Favre was: He is flawed, he makes plenty of mistakes (he takes sacks, he fumbles the ball, he improvises a bit too much at times), but he brings energy and joy to a position that is often robotic.
As mentioned on Thursday night's Oregon-Arizona State broadcast, Manziel was at one point committed to Chip Kelly and Oregon, and while that obviously could have been a perfectly strong fit, it is a really nice thing for college football that he chose to attend school at College Station instead. He has brought such a level of mobility to an offense previously custom-made for the likes of Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum, and considering A&M's pass attack is still perfectly potent, the offense really tickles the imagination at the moment.
That said, a team has shut Manziel and A&M down in 2012, at least mostly.
Florida weathered the storm
In the Aggies' season opener against Florida, they scored 17 points on their first three possessions but were shut out after that. At the time, it seemed to further the "LOL A&M choked" meme that pervaded for much of 2011, but a few weeks later, the eventual 20-17 loss has reflected more positively on Florida and its stellar defense than it has poorly on A&M. With LSU up next for Johnny Football and company, it is worth looking back to what, if anything, Florida did differently to slow down what has since proven to be an incredibly potent attack.
Florida's defense was at quite a disadvantage when it first took the field in College Station. Not only did the Gators have to deal with a complete lack of film (weather postponed the A&M-Louisiana Tech game in Week 1) and a new coaching staff, but any inferences Florida could draw from previous Kevin Sumlin offenses at Houston went out the window the first time Johnny Manziel tucked and ran with the ball (on the third play of the game, Manziel ran for 16 yards on third-and-17 and absorbed a personal foul penalty). The Aggies gained 220 yards on their first 37 plays. Just about everything worked -- Manziel ran for 11, 13 and 16 yards. Christine Michael had a 14-yard run. A screen pass to Trey Williams went for 28. A pass to fellow redshirt freshman Mike Evans went for 27. Manziel found success on a lot of shorter passes and completed 12 of his first 14 (the only two incompletions were well-defended in the Florida end zone).
But when Michael scored from a yard out in the second quarter, putting A&M up by a 17-7 margin, the offense quickly came to a halt. A&M would average just 3.6 yards per play the rest of the way.
How Florida stopped Johnny Manziel
First, they got at least a hair less aggressive. On A&M's passes on the first three possessions, the Gators rushed an average of 3.9 defenders; they blitzed three times early on and Manziel went 2-for-3 for 28 yards. From the fourth possession on, the Gators blitzed just once, choosing instead to alternate between dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage.
They also began to react better to Manziel's tendencies. The short passing game that worked well early on evaporated -- A&M's average yards after catch sank from 6.2 yards to 3.2. And tough, in the face of less pressure and better coverage, Manziel elected to scramble many times (it's what he does), his scrambles rarely paid off: in nine scrambles that we charted, Manziel completed three of five passes but was held to 17 yards in four rushes. Four quarterback draws gained just 16 yards. Twice, Manziel was sacked in the pocket waiting for a receiver to come open.
Even in a five-wide set, which just screams, "Come after me," Florida stuck with the plan of bringing either three or four defenders, and the move worked. A&M still had some decent gains here and there, but the Aggies' six drives after halftime all resulted in punts, four of the three-and-out variety. Florida had the speed to read and react, and it turned out to be a winning strategy.
LSU vs. mobile quarterbacks
It goes without saying that LSU also has the speed to react quickly to whatever Johnny Manziel does with the ball. The Tigers might have one of the few defenses in the country faster than Florida's. LSU held another mobile quarterback, South Carolina's Connor Shaw, to 3.9 yards per pass attempt and 3.8 yards per carry last week in Baton Rouge. But aside from the quarterback's mobility, South Carolina's offense doesn't have a lot in common with Texas A&M's.
On Shaw's pass attempts, the Gamecocks routinely used extra blockers (an average of 5.7 blockers per pass attempt and either seven or eight blockers on eight attempts). As a result, LSU almost had to rush more defenders, and they did (4.2 pass rushers per pass attempt), but they still only brought more than four rushers about 29 percent of the time. Still, the Tigers routinely got solid pressure on Shaw -- that's what happens when you've got Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery (combined: 3.0 sacks against South Carolina) on your defensive line -- and it showed.
Shaw can be devastatingly accurate and efficient at times, but of his 15 incompletions (including interceptions), three were throw-aways, two were overthrown, two were underthrown, and two were the result of miscommunication (which could have also stemmed from pressure on Shaw). LSU sacked Shaw four times, and as the game progressed, Shaw's decision-making seemed to wear down, to the point where Steve Spurrier admitted that he wondered if Shaw had suffered a concussion at some point.
That LSU was able to generate pressure while typically bringing only three or four defenders made life hell for South Carolina's receivers, of which there were often only a couple or a few in the route. On passes longer than six yards downfield, Shaw went only 5-for-17 for 100 yards and two interceptions. On shorter passes, LSU defenders swarmed quickly enough to limit S.C. skill position players to an average of 3.8 yards after catch.
This is a very good sign for LSU. Manziel is a better runner than Shaw -- he might be the second-best rushing quarterback in the country behind Ohio State's Braxton Miller, and honestly, his stats suggest he might actually be a decent amount better than Miller, too -- but the options for Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury will be as follows: Either lean on the running game a bit more and risk getting Manziel hit a lot, or lean more on the passing game and risk either tiny gains on horizontal passes (because three LSU defenders will quickly be in pursuit) or sacks and interceptions on more vertical pass attempts. The former allows for fewer disasters but might wear Manziel down considerably. The latter, meanwhile, could hand LSU easy points. And the late trend for LSU (at least until the South Carolina game) was that either the Tigers scored easy points or didn't score at all.
Can LSU stop Johnny Manziel?
Because of Manziel's recent success, many are attempting to say that there is a lot of pressure on LSU to prove they can slow down such a dynamic talent. Really, though, the LSU defense is still the LSU defense. The pressure is probably more on A&M; the Aggies have torched a series of either iffy or bad defenses, but they struggled against the last great defense they faced, at least once the element of surprise wore off. Sumlin and Kingsbury still need to protect their young, error-prone and incredibly exciting quarterback against a relentlessly fast LSU defense, but the only way the Aggies can win is if Manziel goes crazy.
At the beginning of the season, I said that the biggest game on LSU's schedule might not be Alabama at all -- it might be the Texas A&M game. The logic was simple: the Aggies are going to give the Tigers their home run swing, and they will do so in front of an amped up, nearly psychotic Kyle Field crowd. And without a win tomorrow, LSU will officially watch their national title hopes disappear before Alabama even comes to town.
A&M has looked phenomenal at times, but they are still a bit erratic, and they should make enough errors to give the Bayou Bengals the win. But you'll want to watch anyway, just in case Manziel takes another leap earlier than expected.
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