ARLINGTON, Tex. -- There are no answers, only unanswerable questions.
Johnny Manziel is a human riddle, a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle with one piece missing from the box, all wrapped into one freshman package, one Heisman Trophy winner, one quarterback who needed only four months to alter the course of Texas A&M football.
Oklahoma never stood a chance.
“Johnny Manziel is everything he was billed to be,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
What’s a defense to do? Blitz him? Texas A&M may have the best offensive line in the country, and he’ll probably escape anyway. Drop defenders deep in coverage? He’ll take off running or get so much time to throw that a receiver will inevitably get open. There is nothing you can do, certainly nothing Oklahoma could have done Friday night in the Cotton Bowl at Cowboys Stadium.
Texas A&M won 41-13. Manziel rewrote just about every Cotton Bowl record he could. He had one of the best games you’ll ever see, and Oklahoma never came close to solving him.
Baffled Bob Stoops: “Guys that do get some pressure, when it’s a four-man rush, he takes off and runs because they got five guys blocking four. You’re trying to get pressure and come underneath on an outside rush, then he aborts it and either waits and throws it downfield or takes off and runs for 40. Again, it’s tough.”
What’s a defense to do? What do you do when Luke Joeckel and a star-studded offensive line give Manziel enough time to read a book in the pocket before making his next move? He had a 23-yard touchdown in which he tiptoed down the sideline and pranced into the end zone. He weaved through and sprinted past defenders on a 44-yard run. He scrambled. He turned nothing into something. He found angles that no other quarterback could take. He ran around, past and through tacklers and options and zone reads and draws.
He finished with 229 rushing yards, 287 passing yards, four total touchdowns, the all-time bowl record for rushing yards by a quarterback, the Cotton Bowl record for total yards. Even his one interception was impressive: He spun around in the pocket and threw a strike that was just tipped and bounced off the hands of his receiver in the end zone.
Joeckel, a junior, must answer an impossible question of his own. Go to the NFL, possibly as the top overall pick? Or return for a senior year to block for Johnny Football? The former’s the smart, obvious choice, but you’ve got to admit the latter doesn’t sound too bad either.
“I don’t really get to see him much in the game, but on Sundays, me, Jake (Matthews) and Ced (Ogbuehi) go up and watch film and we just laugh because of the kinds of plays he makes,” Joeckel said. “They shouldn’t be happening against SEC defenses or against defenses like OU. He’s just an incredible player, and he can make a play out of anything.
“Even if one of us does mess up, he makes a guy miss and he’ll do a jump side-arm pass. He’s just an incredible player, fun to watch, and he’s also just smart with the ball. You can’t coach all that.”
As a team, Texas A&M was impossibly better than Oklahoma on Friday night, and thousands of Aggies fans made sure to remind everyone of their newfound power with thunderous S-E-C chants echoing through the building as the game wound down. The Aggies were doubted by many in the SEC world last summer, but by the end of the season an argument could be made that they are as good as any team in the country. Their offense moved up and down the field at will against Oklahoma’s defense, with a one-point halftime lead only coming as a result of OU’s somewhat successful plan to sustain drives and eat the clock. When the Aggies forced back-to-back-to-back quick punts in the third quarter, the game was over.
Baffled Bob Stoops: Again, what do you see all year? It’s hard if you’ve got an angle on him, he stops, goes the other way. If you don’t, he out-runs you. Our guys, I don’t know if we had a track meet who would win. I know all the changes of direction, what he does, is tough to deal with in the open field.”
Manziel and Texas A&M just kept rolling on offense, capping off a perfect storm of a season in College Station: a brilliant new coach in Kevin Sumlin, Joeckel leading a dominant line, a breakout season from pass rusher Damontre Moore, and, of course, best of all, the hidden superstar at quarterback in Manziel, the guy who shattered records, who became the first freshman Heisman winner in college football history, who led the most prolific SEC offense ever (the first with 7,000 total yards), who made Oklahoma’s defense look foolish.
With a month between the end of the season and the Cotton Bowl, people tried to find answers to the puzzle. No, he wasn’t too distracted by the Heisman hype and the late-night talk show appearances. No, the offense wouldn’t struggle without young guru coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who took the Texas Tech head job. No, a month of preparation time didn’t allow the Stoops brothers to find answers.
Baffled Bob Stoops: “You could see how with a month of preparation, they’re adding wrinkles with the option and different plays with him, so that you play him in a one safety high, I’ll say it the right way, you’re out of luck. Then you play him with a two-safety look, you’re out of luck another way. It’s difficult with what they’re doing with him to handle it.”
“Everyone was talking about, ‘You guys have this much time to scheme up y’all,’” Manziel said. “Well, we have this much time to scheme up OU as well, so people didn’t really give us enough credit for that.”
Just 20 years old, and Manziel appears to be the unflappable quarterback. No pressure too much, no stage too great. He’s is a rare talent, a quarterback who makes smart decisions as a passer, has unbelievable speed and agility as a runner and makes plays that very few players can make, over and over.
And so the Sooners chased him all around the field, a never-ending, unattainable quest to simply contain him, leaving one more question to ponder over the long offseason, one more question for defensive coordinators to stew over in the film room: What could possibly be next?
Joeckel may be gone. Moore is gone. Receiver Ryan Swope is gone. Kingsbury is gone. The weight of expectations will be brutal anyway, because Manziel already turned in one of the best seasons the sport has ever seen, and Friday’s Cotton Bowl show won’t make things any easier.
But, for now, that’s the distant future. For now, all that’s left is to appreciate a great season, a great bowl performance. And all Oklahoma can do is wonder if anything could have been done, and then be thankful Johnny Football is wreaking havoc on the SEC instead of the Big 12.
Someone else will have to solve the riddle.