Alabama travels to College Station, Texas this Saturday for the first time since 1988, to go head-to-head with sixth-ranked Texas A&M and Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Last season the Aggies jumped on top of the Crimson Tide 21-0 in the first quarter, led by the electric play of Manziel. The Tide settled in and made the necessary adjustments to make a furious comeback down the stretch.
In the end, Manziel made several big throws to keep A&M on top, and a goal line stand late in the fourth quarter stopped the Alabama comeback.
Alabama comes in as the No. 1 team in the country after a 35-10 win over Virginia Tech, while Texas A&M has blown out two overmatched opponents.
What will it take for the Tide to get revenge and stop a repeat? Here are three keys to an Alabama victory.
Contain Johnny Football
In two games Manziel has completed 70 percent of his passes for 520 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception. He also has 55 yards rushing and one score. Manziel has done all this while missing the first half of the season opener.
Gone is one of Manziel’s favorite targets from last year, Ryan Swope but he still has several weapons, like Mike Evans (82 catches, 1,105 yards, five TDs in 2012) and the incredibly talented freshman Ricky Seals-Jones.
In 2012 Alabama lost containment on several of Manziel’s early scrambles, which led to big yardage. But it was the Manziel’s arm that put the dagger in Alabama’s heart.
Maintaining containment on Manziel is going to be a major factor in the game. Alabama must make sure he isn’t able to scramble out of the pocket and make another highlight-reel play.
The Tide ends and outside linebackers must make sure that as they rush that they push the pocket, and not rush too far up the field, allowing Manziel to escape.
The second part of this is the middle of the field, and the player that will be designated as the “spy” on Manziel the majority of the time. That player is likely senior linebacker CJ Mosley. If Manziel scrambles, Mosley is going to have to be there to put a clamp down on it, and if Manziel dumps it off short it will likely be Mosley’s job to secure a quick tackle.
Maybe the most important factor in containing Manziel will be the Tide defensive backs. When an athletic, scrambling quarterback is on the field, defensive backs can be so worried that they get caught looking into the backfield and lose sight of their receiver, leading to a huge play in the passing game.
The defensive backs have to take care of their assignment first and take away Manziel’s options, allowing the linebackers and linemen to get pressure on Manziel.
In addition, Alabama must hit Manziel early and often. Not cheap shots, but hard thumps every time Manziel tries a read option. Alabama must wear on Manziel they way they beat up Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson a few years ago, making him think about it every time he gets up off the turf.
Ground and Pound
Texas A&M team has struggled to stop the running game this season. Rice ran for over 300 yards on the ground and Sam Houston State ran for over 240. To be fair however, the A&M defense was missing linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury for the first two games.
Alabama’s offensive line had a mediocre performance in the opener against Virginia Tech, but there’s not a soul in the college football world that thinks Texas A&M’s defensive line is near the level of Virginia Tech’s. Regardless, things will start with the offensive line and whether or not it can come together and pound on the Texas A&M defense.
The very best defense against a quarterback like Manziel and the Aggies offense is a slow, methodical running game that keeps him off the field. Alabama throwing powerful backs like T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler, and Derrick Henry at the defense in constant rotation could be just the medicine Alabama needs to keep Manziel off the field.
This is the first time Nick Saban and Alabama have traveled to rowdy College Station, but a noisy, rambunctious atmosphere is nothing new for the Tide players. They drove the length of the field in deafening Tiger Stadium at LSU last year and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Things will be equally as crazy this Saturday as this will be one of the most hyped games of the year.
Saban must keep all of that hype out of his players ears. Manziel has also shown a penchant to trash talk, even drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first game of the season. Alabama’s players can’t let any of that distract them or get into their heads, and the best way to accomplish that is to not give A&M reason to celebrate.
AJ McCarron has shown his leadership ability in situations like this in the past. There is likely no one on the Alabama team as hungry to avenge last year’s only blemish than the fifth-year senior. McCarron is going to have to keep the younger players heads in the game and lead on the field as well as on the sideline when things aren’t going Alabama’s way.
A couple of young guys across the defensive line are also going to have to step up and be thrown into the fire, with Dalvin Tomlinson having knee surgery last week. Facing the up-tempo Texas A&M offense, depth across the defensive line will be critical.
There will be plenty of chances for freshmen like Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson to get into the game and make an impact early in their Alabama careers. LaMichael Fanning will likely see the field as well.
Finally, the Alabama defense has to stay composed in the face of a big play from Manziel. It’s going to happen; at some point Manziel is going to make a play. How Alabama responds will be the difference in the game.