When AJ McCarron took a knee to end it, Alabama was finally safe. There was nothing more Manziel could do.
McCarron threw four touchdown passes, Vinnie Sunseri returned an interception 73 yards for a score — sidestepping Johnny Football on the way to the end zone, too — and Alabama paid back No. 6 Texas A&M with a 49-42 victory Saturday.
Manziel was his spectacular self, throwing for a career-best 464 yards, running for 98 and throwing five TDs. His 562 total yards is the second-most in Southeastern Conference history, ranking only behind the 576 he had against Louisiana Tech.
“We knew we were going to have play this way on offense to have a chance in this game,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “I didn’t think they were going to score 42 points, but I kind of thought they would score some points and they did.”
Alabama (2-0, 1-0 SEC) spotted the Aggies (2-1, 0-1) a 14-0 lead, shades of last season when A&M jumped out to a 20-0 lead on the road, en route to a victory that all but won the Heisman Trophy for Manziel.
McCarron and the Tide didn’t take as long to respond this time, ripping off the next 35 points. McCarron tossed three touchdowns in the first half to put Alabama up 28-14. Sunseri’s pick-6 made it 35-14 less than three minutes into the third.
“I’m so proud of our players for the resiliency they showed getting behind 14-0,” Saban said. “Just slowly and methodically coming back in the game and building up the lead.”
The Manziel magic moment came in the second quarter, when he retreated 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage, pulling away from one pass rusher who had a handful of jersey and launching a deep ball down the middle with another Tide player in his face. Edward Pope came down with the alley-oop for a 12-yard gain that will make every highlight reel. But a couple of plays later Manziel was picked off in the end zone and the game swung the Tide’s way.
“I will take that one on me,” Manziel said.
The Tide followed the pick with a long, slow drive capped by T.J. Yeldon’s 4-yard TD run. Yeldon popped up and looked toward the fans behind the end zone, rubbing his fingers together, mocking Manziel’s move, then finished off his celebration with sort of a double throat slash.
Those antics earned Yeldon a 15-yard penalty and the wrath of Saban on the sideline, but Alabama still took a 28-14 lead into halftime.
Manziel’s third-quarter pick and whiff on the tackle put the Aggies in a deep hole, but he kept bringing them back.
“I thought his play was Johnny-like,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Anybody who’s seen him play, that’s about right.”
Alabama’s best defense was its offense. The Tide gained 568 yards and kept Manziel pacing on the sideline with a couple of long drives.
“With the type of offense A&M has, you have to eat up some clock and pound the ball,” said McCarron, who passed for 334 yards.
This rematch of A&M’s 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last November was hyped for months, heightened by offseason drama about Manziel that culminated with the sophomore getting suspended for half of the opening game after an NCAA investigation into whether he was paid for signing autographs.
Manziel only answered questions about the game afterward. He was one of many Aggies reminding everyone what happened to the loser of this matchup last year.
“This wasn’t the Super Bowl,” Manziel said. “Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn’t over.”
Bama-A&M II lived up to the billing, but this SEC heavyweight matchup was no 9-6 Game of the Century. The offenses were all but unstoppable.
“They’re unbelievable,” Sunseri said. “There’s a reason he won the Heisman. He’s an unbelievable player, I don’t care what he does off the field. He has great receivers and everything. We knew it was going to go back and forth and we just had to try to slow him down.”
A&M’s defense was leaky in its first two games against far weaker opponents. Against Alabama, even with the return of four key players from various suspensions, it put up little resistance. And while the Tide’s offense wore out the Aggies, its defense struck a big blow in the third quarter.
Manziel threw deep down the middle to Malcome Kennedy, but Jarrick Williams had tight coverage for Alabama and tipped the pass into the air. Sunseri came down with it and was off in the other direction, stutter-stepping as Manziel slid on by while trying for a one-arm takedown. The safety broke another tackle on the way into the end zone and Alabama was up 35-14.
Manziel walked slowly across the field to the A&M sideline, taking a couple of glances toward the end zone and Alabama’s celebration. A crowd of 87,596 that was booming like a jet engine earlier fell silent. They were hoping to see the Aggies get their third victory against a No. 1 team, and second straight against Alabama.
Alabama was poised to go up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter when Texas A&M’s defense slammed into Yeldon a couple of yards from the goal line, causing a fumble the Aggies recovered at the 5.
Two plays later, Manziel found Mike Evans deep. The big receiver broke away from a tackler and went 95 yards for a score that made it 42-35 with 8:04 left. Manziel sprinted out of his end zone toward the other to celebrate. The crowd was alive again.
In need of a time-consuming drive, leaned on Yeldon and McCarron. On third-and-goal from the 5, McCarron faked the hand off, rolled right and flipped to Jalston Fowler for the touchdown to make it 49-35 with 2:28 left.
Manziel threw one more TD with 15 seconds left, but Alabama grabbed the onside kick and that was that.
Saban’s defense had given up 628 yards, the most ever allowed by Alabama, and 42 points. Evans finished with 279 yards on seven catches for the Aggies, but the Tide had won.
“I know you tried to make it out (to be) a 61-year-old guy against that good quarterback but we didn’t have much of a chance in that game,” Saban said. “We had a lot better chance our team against their team.”
And the Aggies found out just how tough it is to win two in a row against the Tide. In seven seasons under Saban, only LSU has done it.
It was far from a typical Alabama victory, but the two-time defending national champions will take it.
“We needed everybody all in (Saturday),” Saban said. “Even though it got ugly at times, they competed and it was a great win for us.”