COLLEGE STATION, Texas — With the biggest game of the season a week away, there's still some good and bad when it comes to Texas A&M. And that should make the Aggies' showdown with Alabama on Sept. 14 even more compelling.
The Aggies ran away with a 65-28 win over FCS power Sam Houston State on Saturday at Kyle Field in a game that provided plenty of positives for A&M but also raises some concerns.
Saturday was the final dress rehearsal for Texas A&M (2-0) before it opens up SEC play against defending BCS champion Alabama, the nation's No. 1 team. The Aggies defeated the Crimson Tide 29-24 last season in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and will be looking to make it two in a row against coach Nick Saban & Co.
Offensively, the Aggies looked like one of the nation's best teams on Saturday against Sam Houston State, rolling up 714 yards in quarterback Johnny Manziel's first start of the year. The Heisman Trophy winner played a little more than a quarter last week and didn't start while serving a suspension in the first half of a win over Rice.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback showed shades of the player that won the Heisman last season, making a few plays with his feet. He scooted for a 6-yard touchdown run with 5:24 to go in the third quarter that kick-started a string of 21 unanswered points that the Aggies would close the game out with.
He also showed plenty of his signature emotion on the field, including when he lowered his head like a power running back and ran through cornerback Shelby Davis for a would-be 7-yard touchdown run that was reviewed on replay and later turned into a 6-yard gain for stepping out of bounds, setting up a 1-yard Ben Malena touchdown in the second quarter.
"It was just an emotional play and I play with my heart on my sleeve," Manziel said. "That play, I was doing anything I could to get six points on the board and get this team a bigger lead, to, by any means, get this team six points. That's what I was going for."
While his feet were still a factor occasionally, Manziel showed his progression as a pocket passer when planting his feet and throwing the ball downfield. He found his favorite receiver, sophomore Mike Evans (seven catches, 155 yards) plenty of times and threw a picturesque fade pass to freshman Ja'Quay Williams for a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He finished 28 of 41 passing for 403 yards and three touchdown tosses.
"He was very efficient," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There was some maturity shown on the scrambles, the ability to throw the ball away and not take big losses and take care of the football in times where he might have just slung it up in the middle of the field."
His only significant mistake was an interception thrown when the Aggies were inside the Bearkats' 10 in the first quarter, something Sumlin attributed to a bad play call.
The Aggies were also effective running the ball, compiling 214 yards between five different players, led by Ben Malena (10 carries, 91 yards) and Tra Carson (nine carries, 51 yards) who combined for three scores.
And while the offense functioned smoothly, the area that the Aggies struggled for a second straight week was on defense and specifically, defending the run. Sam Houston State's option attack was effective early, as the Bearkats marched 74 yards on six plays -- all runs -- on their first drive of the game.
For the night, Sam Houston State finished with 240 rushing yards, 170 of which came from running back Timothy Flanders. In the first game of the season, the Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice, while missing six key defensive players to suspensions (Texas A&M was still missing three starters to suspension on Saturday, plus starting defensive end Julien Obioha, who was injured). There were also big plays given up in the passing game, notably a 75-yard touchdown pass from Brian Bell to Torrance Williams.
With the Crimson Tide looming, the Aggies have plenty of work to do when it comes to shoring up the defense.
"We had our moments," Sumlin said. "You look at about really, four big plays, we can't do that. We'll go back and watch the video and assess where we are. I know one, in particular, was a missed tackle. We had a young guy jump out of a gap and they got out to the edge on us. We've got to continue to keep coaching and I think the addition this week of having [Steven] Jenkins back [will help]."
The Aggies also have health issues to deal with. Safety Floyd Raven sat out the second half because of what Sumlin called a collarbone injury. Obioha didn't play, nor did freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones or sophomore running back Trey Williams. Williams is expected back, Sumlin said after the game, but the status on the others is uncertain at this point.
As for Manziel, it was his first time speaking to the media since SEC media days in July. He touched on his meeting with his teammates last week after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation and noted that it was somewhat emotional.
"I said a lot of good things," Manziel said. "It was kind a little bit of an emotional deal for me getting up [there] and trying to get them fired up and let them know that I'm here and I'm focused on this season and I love each and every one of these guys and that these guys mean the world to me.
"There's so much other stuff that gets played on and is out in the public and we know what's in this building and what's in this room, stays in this room. There's a general love for each and every guy on this team, so that's what we were focusing on and that's the message I was trying to get across."
He said his teammates have provided good support for him during the recent months as he has endured criticism and scrutiny nationally.
"The biggest thing that has helped has been being around these guys here in this building and having my teammates and still being able to be around them," Manziel said. "It was easy to block all the stuff out, get off everything and not read anything and just grow with my teammates and continue to get a better bond with them and just being up here, spending time with them, that was something that was really, really helpful."
Alabama rested with an open date on its schedule this weekend after a season-opening win over Virginia Tech on Aug. 31. The Aggies got to tune up a little more. So who had the advantage? Time will tell, but Manziel feels like the Aggies benefited from playing.
"We had another opponent, another game, a full-speed game to play before they did," Manziel said. "It's hard to simulate a game in practice even though you get to go over more tape and what-not, but we had another game to go out and get some of these young guys up to speed and that's hard to really simulate in practice."
Now, the Aggies turn their attention toward trying to repeat history.