COLUMN: Opposites under center big focus in Cotton Bowl
IRVING, Texas — This year's 77th AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic may pit two of college football's top conferences — the SEC and the Big 12 — against one another, but if there's one position that holds the key to victory, it is undoubtedly the battle between the two men under center.
In one corner, freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel looks to defend his Heisman fame to deliver a quality performance for the Texas A&M offense against a Sooner defense loaded with a senior based line and several experienced defensive backs.
In the other corner stands quarterback Landry Jones, a senior who wants to go out in his final game on top while being able to throw to one of the nation's best wide receiving corps.
Although Jones has a chance to solidify his collegiate legacy by also tying a school record of four consecutive bowl game wins, the coaching staff admitted the senior isn’t letting all the hype sneak into the play book.
“He’s not thinking about winning four straight,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “Landry’s used to playing in big games like this, but all that really doesn’t matter because he’s just looking to win the game on Friday.”
However, Texas A&M’s playmakers know how big a win over Oklahoma would be to the program.
“We need to get back to the national stage,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “These guys understand that they have the opportunity to get 11 wins, which is a big deal. There have only been three A&M teams in 117 teams to win 11 games.”
And the Aggies certainly have a leader on the team who can get the job done.
Manziel posted mind-numbing numbers during his year under center.
He became the first player in SEC history to have two 500-plus yard games in the same season after amassing 557 yards against Arkansas and 576 yards against Louisiana Tech. The 576 total offensive yards was the third-highest by a freshman in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
Manziel finished the regular season with 4,600 total yards of total offense, enough to erase Cam Newton’s SEC record of 4,327 total yards set in 2010, that combined with a win over then-No. 1 Alabama, allowed him to bring the Heisman Trophy home from New York City.
But more importantly, the youthful quarterback keeps defenses guessing what he‘s going to do next.
Manziel finished with 3,419 passing yards and 24 touchdowns through the air. But to keep the SEC defenses scheming each week, Manziel complimented himself with 1,181 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns.
“He doesn’t try to be anybody he’s not, and he plays to his strengths extremely well,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “His ability to extend and create plays ... there’s not a defense created to defend against that and being able to keep him in the pocket is easier said than done because the offensive line does a great job of creating space for him.”
But Jones is no spring chicken.
The senior has more than 16,300 passing yards and has 122 touchdowns under his belt. He’s played quarterback in almost every game since the 2009 season opener and will be making his 50th career start Friday.
“It seems like he’s been there forever,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “And he runs the offense extremely well and gives them a chance to win.”
Jones became the first player in the program’s history to register back-to-back 500-yard passing games this season with 554 yards against West Virginia and 500 yards against Oklahoma State. He owns all three of the Sooners’ 500-yard performances.
Jones also holds numerous passing records at OU and recently became the Big 12’s all-time passing leader (16,124 yards) and career leader in total offense (15,756 yards). Jones also became the first player in FBS history to have 3,000-plus passing yards and 26-plus touchdown passes in each of his four seasons with the Sooners.
“Jones is a very good quarterback,” Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart said. “But we need to make him uncomfortable in the pockets and move him off his spots.”
Likewise, the OU defensive backs are ready to take up the challenge of upsetting this year’s Heisman-winning quarterback.
“I think we can (stop Manziel), and I know we will have the opportunity to do it,” OU junior safety Tony Jefferson said. “We just have to be disciplined and do our assignments.”
The battle in the trenches certainly will be the difference in how the defenses can impact these two quarterbacks, but Manziel is known for his rushing capabilities whereas the Sooners will look to establish their own running game with junior running backs Brennan Clay and Damien Williams. And if a defense in this game wants to be able to get off the field in three downs, the first goal will be to get Jones and Manziel out of rhythm.
Otherwise, Cotton Bowl fans may been in for an offensive, record-setting night.
Tobi Neidy is a multidisciplinary studies major.