- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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SHREVEPORT, La. -- So this is progress?
Only at No. 22 Texas A&M, which lost five games last season in which it held a double-digit lead, might turning a 27-0 late-second-quarter lead over No. 23 Louisiana Tech into a 59-57 victory be viewed as a step forward. That's because twice in the fourth quarter Saturday, the second time with 38 seconds to play, the Bulldogs lined up for a two-point conversion to tie the game.
The Aggies stopped both plays and escaped with their record (5-1) intact. Coach Kevin Sumlin said all the things coaches say after they win, but he looked and sounded more exhausted than happy. It was that kind of win.
"There are some things in that locker room right now," Sumlin said. "We're happy we won but we're not overjoyed. We know that we played a good football team but we can play better. There are some things that we've got to clean up. We'll get that done this week."
Freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel broke the Southeastern Conference total offense record of 557 yards that he had set two weeks ago against Arkansas. Manziel completed 24 of 40 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 181 yards and another three touchdowns. And he played nearly the entire game without his best receiver, senior Ryan Swope, who took a blow to the head in the first quarter and never returned.
Blocking break down? Defense blitzing? Manziel looks as ruffled as James Bond straightening his shirt cuffs. He either runs away from the defenders or swivels his hips through them.
The sight of Manziel moving out of the pocket makes every defensive coordinator think he should update his résumé. His ability in the open field isn't anything Sumlin or offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury taught him. Some skills simply aren't taught.
And some skills simply aren't learned yet. Manziel, trying to escape a safety, threw a pass directly to Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Shakeil Lucas, who returned it 5 yards for the touchdown that pulled the Bulldogs within 46-44 with 11:59 to play. That was the first of the two two-point conversions they failed to make in the fourth quarter.
"There were a number of plays he made after the interception that were great," Sumlin said.
The greatest, a 72-yard broken-play touchdown run, put the Aggies up 59-44 with 2:04 to play. And yet the Bulldogs scored two touchdowns and still left 38 seconds on the clock. After the second score, with the Aggies clinging to the 59-57 lead, quarterback Colby Cameron overthrew R.P. Stewart, and the scoring came to an end.
Cameron didn't set any conference records, but he overcame a slow start to complete 44 of 58 passes for 450 yards and five touchdowns. Quinton Patton caught 21 of those passes for 233 yards and four scores.
Perhaps Louisiana Tech noticed that two Texas A&M defensive mainstays, linebacker Steven Jenkins and safety Howard Matthews, were suspended. It might have come to Cameron's attention that the Aggies had no more than six defensive backs.
The mystery is what took Cameron and the Bulldogs so long. They didn't score until 5:32 remained in the second quarter. And on the first play from scrimmage after Patton caught an 11-yard touchdown pass, Manziel threw a 75-yard touchdown to Mike Evans. That made the score 34-7.
"We had a hard time getting into a rhythm early," Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said. "I don't know if it was nerves or what."
When the Aggies scored 13 points in the last 6:24 last week to win 30-27 at Ole Miss, they not only won their first road game in the Southeastern Conference but they believed they had exorcised the demons that plagued them throughout last season.
Sumlin has preached that this is a new season. The offensive and defensive schemes are different. And on Saturday night into Sunday morning, Texas A&M played as if to show it hadn't quite gotten all of last season out of its system.
Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech spent four hours Saturday night and into Sunday morning proving that football is not a 60-minute game. Never mind that coaches long ago installed that thought into the Cliché Hall of Fame.
If the Bulldogs (5-1) had arrived at Independence Stadium before the middle of the second quarter, they still would be undefeated. And if the Aggies had not taken their foot off the gas after racing to a 27-0 lead, they wouldn't have been in danger of restoring their reputation as the biggest gift-givers in college football.
"Guys made plays when they had to," Aggies linebacker Jonathan Stewart said, "but we got to correct a lot of things in this game."
Not that the game took a long time to play, but when it began, Herman Cain was still a presidential candidate. OK, that's an exaggeration. It just felt like the game started on its original date of Aug. 30. The game passed the three-hour mark in the third quarter and ended at 12:45 a.m. CT Sunday, 4 hours and 28 minutes after the opening kickoff. Everybody chipped in. The SEC crew called more than 27 penalties for 260 yards. That's just how many were accepted.
When it ended, as harrowing as it might have been, the Aggies had shown their mettle in the fourth quarter -- again.
"What's happened the last two weeks has been so good for these guys," Sumlin said, "because we lost all these games last year."
Texas A&M might have shed its fourth-quarter gift-giving status this season, but the Aggies didn't make it look easy against Louisiana Tech.