ARLINGTON, Texas -- I don’t usually beg to work during January. For a baseball beat writer, time off before spring training is precious. But there wasn’t any way I was going to miss Friday’s AT&T Cotton Bowl, even if it meant cutting short a vacation to do it.
I had to see Johnny Manziel in person. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is great in HD. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to see him racing around the JerryWorld turf and on the gargantuan video board above the field.
I’ll confess that I almost expected him to let me down. After all, he’s a freshman who has had a whirlwind month. He won the Heisman and gave a nice speech. He went on "Letterman" and a bunch of other late-night shows. He has done a ton of interviews since the regular season ended, something freshmen don’t normally do at Texas A&M (and many other programs). There was so much buildup that it was possible he wouldn’t live up to all the hype.
But Johnny Football absolutely exceeded it. He obliterated the Cotton Bowl record book, rushing for 229 yards, the most by any quarterback in the game’s history and the fourth-most by any player in the illustrious history of the bowl. He had 516 total yards, also a Cotton Bowl record. He had two rushing touchdowns and two passing TDs, and dazzled everybody watching.
Manziel looked like a guy trying to validate his Heisman Trophy. I’m sure he didn’t think of it that way, but there were voters unsure about handing that famous award to a freshman for the first time. I don’t understand those folks, but they were out there. You won’t hear much out of them after Friday’s game.
The stats are impressive. The only other quarterback with 200-plus rushing and passing yards in a bowl game was Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl. But it’s watching Manziel that’s so much fun. He makes an 8-yard run up the middle a work of art, zigzagging his way around defenders who go to grasp him and come up with air. He darts in and out of holes, makes tacklers miss by quickly shifting gears and directions before they can figure out what’s happening.
Manziel’s athleticism allows him to tiptoe down the sidelines, like he did in the first quarter, turning what should have been a short gain into a 23-yard touchdown run. He gets pressured, runs away from it and always keeps his eyes downfield searching for an open receiver. And he normally finds one.
One of his most impressive plays Friday happened to be his lone interception. He rolled to his right, felt the OU pass rush closing in, spun around, and flung a pass to the back of the end zone that hit the hands of receiver Malcome Kennedy and ended up as a turnover. It should have been a highlight-reel touchdown.
Perhaps Manziel wouldn’t win a 40-yard dash against some of the Oklahoma defenders, but his ability to change directions and make shrewd cuts makes him extremely difficult to run down. It also means you can’t take your eyes off the field when A&M goes on offense.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops found himself trying to explain why his club couldn’t contain Manziel. He’s not the only coach who has had to answer those questions. Stoops said Manziel is the best quarterback his team faced all season.
"Because of not only throwing the football, but what he does with his feet," Stoops said. "Even if guys are in position, he’s strong and quick running. He’s hard to get to."
That’s for sure. The Cotton Bowl didn’t shy away from building this as a game involving not only two former Big 12 foes, but a Heisman Trophy quarterback who could showcase his skills in front of a national audience and the second-largest crowd in Cotton Bowl history. Manziel refused to disappoint.
I’m glad I got a chance to witness it. Sure, I would have preferred a closer game and a compelling finish. But then again, we might not have had the chance to see Manziel truly dominate the game. That was worth a shortened vacation and a fun night of "work."
It’s eight months until Texas A&M versus Alabama in College Station. I can’t wait.