Up until he faced the staunch and smothering Alabama defense, Mississippi State’s junior running back LaDarius Perkins was the leading rusher in the SEC.
Now? He’s been over-taken by the guy his defense will have to stop this week.
He’s also been passed by a quarterback. Yep, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, a freshman QB, is the top runner in the Southeastern Conference, averaging 99.1 yards per game. On top of that, he leads all member institutions in total offense, his 277 passing yards per game giving him a hefty 376.1-yard average per outing.
That, as you’d imagine, is why they call him Johnny Football.
“He’s got just tremendous athletic ability,” Dan Mullen said. “He’s a very accurate passer on top of that. He doesn’t have, maybe, the size or the big arm as NFL-mold, but his athleticism makes up for it, and the fact he’s very accurate in his passes.”
This Saturday will be the third time under Mullen Mississippi State has faced a Kevin Sumlin-coached team, playing him twice previously when he was the head coach at Houston. With it being Sumlin’s first year at A&M and the Aggies inaugural season in the SEC, the Bulldogs have as much as familiarity with Sumlin’s team as anyone.
Of course, it may not matter.
Both Mullen and defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said Manziel is the type of play-maker who can make up for any deficiencies by the rest of his 16th-ranked team.
In particular, they say, Manziel keeps plays going, even when they appear to have broken down, not only by running for first downs, but by scrambling behind the line for more time to find an open receiver.
“He’s got tremendous athletic ability and the ability to keep plays alive – to improvise,” Mullen said. “So not only does he execute their offense very well but when you stop their offense he was the ability to go and create and improvise on his own outside of the box. He just starts running around and making things happen and he’s got great athleticism, tremendous speed, make you miss. He looks like a natural ball-carrier in what he does and how he runs with the ball – reading blocks and cutting. The biggest threat is those extra things he does when a play breaks down.”
So, the proper course of action is to focus on Manziel, yes?
So it would seem, but to listen to Mullen, who says he’s already watched Texas A&M film, it’s nowhere near so easy.
Manziel is dangerous, but here’s the rub: so are many of his teammates.
“They spread out all over the field and they have great athletes,” Mullen said, “so you’ve got to defend all these great athletes all over the field, and you know, oftentimes, you leave him all in the box all by himself.”
And Johnny Football by himself, we’ve learned, is quite dangerous for opposing defenses.
Wilson, who has a close friendship with Sumlin, said there is no one you can compare Manziel to, no other quarterback to whom he bears a resemblance.
“Not in our league,” the defensive coordinator said with the shadow of a smile.
The first comparison to come to Wilson’s mind was former Heisman winner Cam Newton, but purely because he was both a runner and a passer, Wilson said, noting it’s nowhere near a perfect comparison, for body type reasons alone.
“What A&M is doing is similar to what Coach Sumlin has done at Houston, but it’s more tailored for their quarterback,” Wilson said. “He’s a guy who can beat you with his arm, but can also beat you with his feet. He’s a guy who really keeps a lot of plays alive in the passing game as well as the rushing game.”
So, Manziel is good. The Aggie offense, as expected, is strong, fast and dangerous.
That much has been established.
The question is, how do you stop them? While it’s not easy, it can be done. In A&M’s two losses this season – to Florida and LSU – Manziel has been held in check and the offensive Aggie attack was stifled.
As Mullen said, though, Florida and LSU stacked the box with “all those four and five-star guys.”
Does MSU have the same talent? Wilson hopes so.
He’s certainly been studying the blueprint left by the Tigers and Gators, anyway.
“I’ve watched it more than once,” Wilson cracked. “The biggest thing is the match-ups on the football field. You’ve gotta have guys who can get him on the ground. I don’t know if this is a game for 330-pounders at times. You’ve gotta be able to stop the run game, they’ve done a tremendous job in the run game, but he’s a part of that. What he does is, when people try to play the receivers close, he’s able to scramble and keep plays alive.”
Again, Wilson said, it comes down to personnel.
“It’s about having the right people,” he said. “When you watch that tape, Florida and LSU, a lot of speed on the field for them. They were able to match speed. And at the end of the day, you’ve gotta be strong in the red zone. They’re going to move the ball. They’re going to get yards.”