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Johnny Manziel reawakens 12th Man spirit in Chick-fil-A Bowl comeback 52-48

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On the eve before the dawn of 2014, the future of Texas A&M’s football program clung precipitously, unexpectedly, to the ledge of a cliff. Aggie football fans around the world had planned their end-of-year celebrations to center around a reasonably expected victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, followed by a cursory toast to auld lang syne. That was the plan. But the brash, crashing, smashing offense of the #20 Texas A&M Aggies had run into a blue brick wall. Against the disciplined, determined and directed #22 Duke Blue Devils in the Georgia Dome, the night looked all but over for the Aggies, with Duke leading, 21-3 just six minutes into the second quarter.

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The Aggies were in an even bigger fight, though, as what was at stake was more than a bowl game, or the final game of the season for the seniors, maybe even two more who might go pro. It was the spirit of the 12th Man that needed rescuing from an almost certain fate of obscurity, because the Aggie spirit “to a man” inside the Georgia Dome had sunk to an all-time low. Hopes had been dashed beyond seeming repair, and the Duke fans, who outnumbered the Aggies in attendance, simply drowned out any noise the Aggies could muster. And in the early stages of the second quarter, there had been no reason for any noise. Television cameras panned happy, loud Duke fans, and the few shots of the Aggie fans showed disbelief and confusion on their faces.

Aggie hearts were already heavy at the prospect of rumors being true that it could be the final game of the college careers of Manziel and receiver Mike Evans. Around Aggieland that was considered a fait accompli, although signs asking Manziel (at least) for “one more year” were displayed by children who had discovered their love for college football, and Texas A&M, courtesy of #2, Heisman Trophy winner Manziel.

But the Aggies were not used to losing, really, ever since last December’s awarding of the Heisman Trophy to freshman Johnny Manziel, setting a new precedent for commending a freshman player. All season long, the Aggies had dreamed of a national BCS Bowl in which they’d meet, and beat, longtime rival Alabama or whomever survived to that spot. Maybe even a second Heisman for their fearless offensive team leader. And those were not unrealistic hopes for Aggie fans, really.

The bowl game was not going to decide anything, really, but it was a bowl game for the 8-4 Aggies to play a vastly improved Duke team (at 9-4 before last night). The sold-out Georgia Dome, though, held more Duke boosters than Aggie fans. Duke jumped out 7-0 on a touchdown but the Aggies were prepared to answer back.

The Aggies then saw a nightmare of two emotional outbursts from sure-handed receiver Mike Evans, a Manziel favorite target. Both outbursts resulted in costly penalties, and it was the debut of Manziel’s singlehanded determination to fix whatever went wrong. Stalling on offense, the Ags had to settle for a field goal, and with the score 7-3, Manziel zipped over to the sidelines, peeled off his helmet, spiked it on the ground and stared straight into the chin of Mike Evans, yelling all the way. When Evans simply refused to acknowledge Johnny, turning his head away, left, things escalated to new heights. Manziel would not be denied, grabbed Evans' helmet and turned his head back toward him, mouthing “look at me” and other relevant suggestions.

Duke would score two more unanswered touchdowns as the Aggie defense seemed incapable of stopping anything. Aggie fans were dejected, disgusted, and disbelieving, especially since the game had a national television audience. The cameras panned over to Manziel on the sidelines, seen to mouth “What is this? What is this?” And so, with 6 minutes spent in the second quarter, Johnny Manziel determined to make things happen on offense, no matter what.

Travis Labhart would score on a 23-yard pass from #2, bringing the score to 21-10, but Duke’s ace quarterback, Anthony Boone, responded with a 59-yard pass to Crowder, and the 18-point advantage looked daunting at 28-10. One more time, Manziel put out the call to his team to watch him, keep their eyes focused and he found Labhart again on a 9-yard pass, bringing the score to 28-17 with 6;45 left in the half.

The Aggie defense was about as sure-footed as a child’s slip-n-slide surface in stopping the Duke offense, as they chewed up the clock on the ground long enough to score, making it 35-17. Manziel sat on the sidelines, his head hidden by towels draped over it, staying focused on the task at hand, if ever he could get the ball back.

If there’s one thing worse than thinking you have only 2:31 left in the first half to make a strike towards overcoming an 18-point deficit, it’s when the opposing team pulls the onside kick trick and skunks your defense, which is exactly what happened. An again unsuspecting Aggie defense handed the Duke Blue Devils one more chance to score. The defense tried to step up their play and managed to give up only a field goal. The only sign of Aggie joy was deafening silence as the team stumbled toward the locker room, down 38-17.

History was made, all right, at that point in the game. The 21-point deficit was now about to be the benchmark for highest challenge to make up for in a proposed comeback victory. The typical ESPN sports sideline reporter asked the typical banal questions of Aggie Head Coach Kevin Sumlin and he was polite. Really, is it a good idea to ask the Coach whose team is down 21 if he’s (a) surprised by the score, (b) disappointed in the defense, or (c) thinks “they” can come back. Someone is going to have to school some more television reporters but while Coach Sumlin was choking back the urge to say “are you kidding me?” Johnny Manziel, self-appointed coach of the day was busy taking charge in the locker room, at least until Sumlin could get there.

What was said in that locker room has been summarized and surmised enough today, but the bottom line is that Manziel’s insistence that each and every player on the team refuse to give up, to have faith in each other and in him, and to ignore the scoreboard was sufficient message to receive. Manziel was likely hoarse from screaming because he animatedly gestured, motioned, and jumped up and down, anything to get their attention. He got it.

Manziel used his time wisely during that halftime. Johnny shouted encouragement. Postgame, the message was revealed, “we play this game 0 to 0, starting brand new. Forget the score, do not look up at the scoreboard. Look at me. We can do this. If you can’t do this, if you can’t follow this, then you stay in this locker room. I don’t want you out on the field with me.” Everyone came out of the locker room a new team.

Sumlin stayed calm, and newly tapped offensive play caller Jake Spavital folded and unfolded his single-sheet folio of plays. Manziel watched, communicated, and engineered the rest of that game as the master playmaker he is. The Aggies managed to get a new lease on life with a simple Manziel to Labhart touchdown (his third of the night ) and with the score 38-24, but it wasn’t as simple as that.

It was an ESPN moment as he had managed to elude one Duke tackle, then he started up into the line, seemed to almost step on a Duke player, then he spun around mid-air, stepped back down onto the turf, spun right, moved around and found Travis Labhart wide open and threw a perfect pass. That made it 38-24. That single play made permanent highlight reel history, and it was sufficient to inspire the Aggie defense to give the offense a chance to rest, if only briefly.

Duke tried to keep the ball on the ground and grind up some clock and the defense had an occasional stop to stymie another offensive effort, and the Aggies got the ball back. Tra Carson caught the Manziel toss for a 21-yard touchdown run on a drive that took 2 minutes and six plays to move 70 yards. The score was now 38-31 and the Aggies were more than alive and kicking. That was not enough, so while Duke offense was on the field, Johnny Manziel found a sidelines ladder, climbed up, and motioned precisely to the crowd to get them up off their feet, yelling, showing the team their support that they were still in it.

Never before had the legend of the 12th Man come to life than that single vision of what Manziel was doing, and never in at least the past 40 years of Aggie football has an Aggie crowd ever needed any encouragement to yell, but last night that 21-point halftime Duke lead had taken its toll on the Aggie faithful, each of whom likely spent thousands of dollars to reach their destination.

The Ags were standing all right, but they were not saying much. Even the television commentators were mentioning, and re-mentioning, how quiet and subdued the Aggie fans were compared to the Duke crowd. Anyone who has ever experienced a home game at Kyle Field knows how surreal that sounds, but it was the case. Some never-say-die Aggies watching on television had even turned the channel, having given up hope and unable to watch. Others continued to watch, half-sick, half-scared but not believing what had happened.

Finally, the Aggie defense had rallied and managed to make Duke settle for a field goal on their next possession stretching the lead by 41-31. Manziel didn’t let anyone look at the scoreboard and he just insisted every single offensive player watch him. Manziel and others ran down the field again in less than 3 minutes of the 4th quarter, with Manziel on the score. Suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel, as the score was now 41-38.

One more time, Duke’s Boone had any number of receivers and they pulled out one more touchdown on the ground and in the air, while chewing up six minutes of clock. At 5:44 in the game, Manziel used exactly 53 seconds to move 67 yards on 3 plays, as his 44-yard toss to Derek Walker made for Manziel’s fourth touchdown toss. Once again the Aggies had scraped to within 3; the score was still Duke advantage 48-45.

And then as sportscaster Al Michaels would say, “Do you believe in miracles?” Senior Toney Hurd, Jr. did. And so did Johnny Manziel, as he watched from the sidelines when Hurd intercepted the previously perfect Boone and ran the ball back for a 55-yard go-ahead touchdown, and the score was now 52-48. On the sidelines, Johnny was cleared for launch as he jumped high, and congratulated every player on the defense as they came back in. With 3:33 left, Duke had plenty of time to try and regain the lead they’d had all night. Again, they were on the move toward the goal line. And then the impossible happened.

Senior Nate Askew grabbed a deflected pass from Boone, the same Boone who’d managed to gather a 21-point lead over the Aggies. The Aggie defense made a final goal-line stand and it has to be mentioned how vital the play of Deshazor Everett was in this series. Askew secured the Aggie win with his vigilance and skill, keying off of Everett's play to give full credit for the tag-team victory. As the clock ticked off the final seconds of the game, you could have lit up a county in Texas on the watts powered by Manziel’s smile. He had believed in his team, even when they had started losing faith in their own talents.

Johnny had recognized another flaw off the field, the quiet and sorrow of the stunned Aggie fans, and as they were starting to let up their screaming at the Georgia Dome, that was when Manziel took to that ladder on the sidelines and directed them like some college bandleader at a halftime show, and got them fully engaged and behind their Fighting Texas Aggie football team.

Most importantly, Manziel called that 12th Man into action in a way that would have made E. King Gill proud. The tradition is described in detail on the Aggie web site, but the bottom line is that Aggie Coach Dana X. Bible had run through all his reserves in the game as the Aggies were playing Centre College. He needed one more, and "ran up to the press box looking for one of his players who was up there helping the reporters." Gill came down, suited up, and stood the entire rest of the game, “in case his team needed him.” That’s the reason all Aggie students stand the entire game in the stands all season long, “in case their team needs them.” Manziel called upon the spirit of the 12th Man last night, and they responded resoundingly that they were there. He had to but call them.

As the Aggies engineered the biggest comeback in over 100 years of school history, it was Manziel’s return to the principles of what makes Texas A&M a school to be beloved, revered, and respected. It’s about the collective spirit, faithfulness of the Aggie family. It’s that “we can do this” spirit when the odds are against you, to fail, get knocked down, and get back up and get in there, that legends of a school that was once primarily all good ol' Texas farm boys studying engineering and agriculture were built on—that makes up what Texas A&M traditions are all about.

There were a lot of “what if’s” long before game time last night. Were it not for Aggie losses to the University of Missouri and LSU, and some perfection-challenging minor physical injuries to Manziel, that national championship scenario could have well played out. It’s just like an Aggie to reach for the stars, where athletic teams are concerned. It’s the expectation to win, and it’s an unwritten rule that the most important win of 100 years’ time should be against the University of Texas.

Even though the traditional Thanksgiving day matchup had been gone now two years, and even though the Aggies still sing the exact same war hymn, encouraging everyone to “Saw Varsity’s Horns Off,” the talents of the competition in the SEC placed the Aggies in an entirely new echelon of excitement when it came to college football. But a lot of the old standing traditions were sadly being bulldozed in favor of making room for the new guard.

G. Rollie White was gone last fall. The minute the last fall home game was played, the bulldozers were on their way into Kyle Field to knock down more concrete to rebuild and make way for the future of Texas A&M as an SEC power, an SEC-driven, and a football-centered school. Alumni from around the world opened their hearts and their wallets to make those dreams come true the moment, one year ago, that freshman Johnny Manziel brought them a Heisman Trophy after a 55-year drought.

And once again, Manziel brought back to mind what, and who, the 12th Man is really all about, after a momentary lapse in memory. Faith had been restored and the Aggies had the biggest win of their lives, over Duke, in Atlanta, in the Chick-Fil-A bowl, even if they were not playing Alabama for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl two nights later.

Were it not for a one-man reincarnation of E. King Gill, the Chick-Fil-A bowl could have been in the loss column, along with one of the grandest of all Aggie traditions of never giving up. But, Johnny Manziel was there to save the day and remind us (borrowing a song from Lenny Kravitz, see video) “It Ain’t Over til It’s Over.” The player in the #2 jersey led his team in his own unique style last night, the one-of-a-kind maverick, who finished his second year of college play with panache, a permanent legend that will remain Johnny’s alone in Aggieland. Whether he stays another year or goes pro instead, no one will write a more colorful, end to the Aggies’ second season in the SEC. Thanks to Mr. Manziel, for two years of surreal college football play, and for starting 2014 off with a real bang for Aggies everywhere.

Biggest Comebacks per Texas A&M Athletics
Deficit Score Opponent, Year Final
-21 38-17 Duke, 2013 W, 52-48
-20 7-27 Baylor, 1958 W, 33-27
-17 0-17 Oklahoma St., 2007 W, 24-24
-17 0-17 Baylor, 1986 W, 31-30
-15 12-27 Kansas St., 1998 W, 36-33 ot
-15 7-22 Oklahoma St., 1997 W, 28-25 ot

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