SHREVEPORT, La. — The nation’s best hope to bust the BCS is no more. One-loss non-AQ teams don’t get invited to the big-money games. It just isn’t done, dahling. Heading into Week 7, three undefeated mid-major teams clung to aspirations of posh January destinations. Right now, it’s hard to imagine any of them making the trip. The Ohio Bobcats move to 7-0 but continue to play close games against lowly competition. The UTSA Roadrunners (they were, technically, undefeated! No, YOU shut up) got pummeled by Rice. And the Bulldogs, winners on the road in the ACC and Big Ten, fell short in a virtual home game, 59-57, against SEC newcomer Texas A&M.
It’s how short, and how the Bulldogs got there, that’s the story. “Those who left early,” said Sonny Dykes in his postgame press conference, “ought to be ashamed of themselves.” We quite agree.
We’ll talk a lot about Colby Cameron tonight, maybe because we’re still feeling the echoes of seeing Nick Florence have a career day and still go home with a loss. Cameron has a lot to be proud of tonight. So does Quinton Patton, his primary receiver, who caught four of his touchdown passes. “A whole lot of things happened in that football game,” said Kevin Sumlin afterward, “and it could have gone either way.”
But we must first spend some words burnishing the hatchling legend of Texas A&M quarterback and utter mutant Johnny Manziel, who as a redshirt freshman set program and SEC records for total offense with tonight’s 576-yard performance. Before the arrival of Manziel, the Aggies had recorded 13 400-yard performances in school history. Manziel has now recorded three such games in six tries as a college football player. His rushing output (181 yards) and the aforementioned 72-yard dash were both career efforts. It can be goofy to laud career days from freshmen, who have almost no body of work with which to compare new games, and to goggle at offensive stats against defenses like Louisiana Tech’s, but we think you’ll agree this calls for just a bit of decorous celebration.
“He’s only played six games as a freshman,” said Sumlin. “I think he will be the first to tell you he is working to get better every game.” Shuddering, SEC West? Just a touch?
Who knows what might have happened had this game been played in August, as originally scheduled, but the Hurricane Isaac delay sent two established offenses into Shreveport. On one sideline, wearing blue and red, Cameron, Patton and Kenneth Dixon. Opposite them, Manziel in maroon and white. (Manziel counts as an offense all by himself. If you do not agree, you did not see this game.) It would be Johnny Football and friends who struck first. And second. Also third, fourth and fifth. Christine Michael broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run just more than a minute into the game; Manziel added a rushing and passing touchdown before the first quarter was out; Taylor Bertolet added two field goals, and Tech was staring down a 27-0 deficit with the second quarter not even halfway done.
Many fans left. We understand this, even if we don’t condone it. Cameron shrugged (we didn’t see him, but guys in this situation tend to shrug heroically, right?) and went to work. An 11-yard touchdown pass to Patton put the Bulldogs on the board, and 27 seconds later the Aggies scored right back. Looking at the box score, you will note this as something of a recurring theme from tonight’s game, in both directions. If we detailed the circumstances behind every score, we’d be here until dawn, but one more note from the second quarter that’s going to be important later on: After Dixon’s six-yard touchdown run cut the deficit to 34-13, Matt Nelson’s extra point attempt was blocked, and returned for two by Damontre Moore. It was Nelson’s first miss on a field goal or extra point attempt this season, and created a point swing that would turn out to be problematic.
If you’re scrolling down to find out just where the ballgame broke out, you’ll want to start here: The Bulldogs hit the locker room trailing 39-16, and by early in the fourth quarter had eroded the Aggies’ lead to 46-38, on a 21-yard Dixon run and two-point rushing conversion by Cameron. Nelson kicked into the end zone for a touchback, and a holding penalty on the ensuing first down walked the Aggies from the 25 back to the 15. A false start walked them back five more. On first-and-25 from A&M’s 10-yard line, Shakeil Lucas intercepted Manziel for a five-yard pick-six. Six would be it, for the moment, with Dustin Harris returning the favor and intercepting Cameron’s two-point pass.
“I don’t really remember a lot about it,” said Lucas. “I jumped the route and when I saw the end zone in front of me, my pee-wee days kicked in and I wasn’t going to be denied.”
From here, the Aggies began to wind the clock down in earnest. The next touchdown drive, culminating in a 17-yard pass from Manziel to Thomas Johnson, took 4:31 — the longest scoring drive of the game, and one of only two to last longer than four minutes. A sack on Cameron on second down helped hand the ball back to A&M, at which point we got to watch Manziel do a little problem solving. Question: What does Johnny Football do when a 60-yard touchdown run from Ben Malena is called back for holding? Answer: Wait until it’s third-and-24, then rip off a 72-yard touchdown run his own damn self.
A 59-44 game with two minutes and change left on the clock is done-ish, right? Not so, for this is, after all, half a WAC game. On the Bulldogs’ first play from scrimmage, Cameron and Patton connected on a 62-yard score. Tech recovered the onside kick, chewed up most of the remaining 1:46, and got back in the end zone with a 13-yard Ray Holley catch. Trailing by two still, Cameron attempted another two-point conversion pass, unsuccessfully. At 1:45 a.m. ET on Sunday morning, any real chance of seeing a non-AQ team in a BCS bowl was busted. (There is, perhaps, a case to be made for Boise State, but we’ll save that for this week’s Profiles in Profiteroles.)
“I told the team I was really proud of the way we fought,” Dykes said. “I’ve never been more proud of a team fighting back against that kind of adversity. But it was no moral victory.”
Still, he conceded, and we have to agree: “It was a hell of a football game.”