2013 presents a new challenge for A&M’s Johnny Manziel

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Everything about Texas A&M and quarterback Johnny Manziel caught the rest of the college football world off guard in 2012. With a new coach — Kevin Sumlin — and a new conference — the SEC West — the Aggies weren’t predicted by some *ahem* to even go bowling, much less finish 11-2 with perhaps the best individual victory of the season on the road against Alabama last November.

Meanwhile, the stars aligned perfectly for Manziel. The redshirt freshman emerged from an offseason quarterback battle where he was presumed to play the role of backup and ended up as one of the most exciting players in the country — not to mention the first ever freshman, redshirt or otherwise, to win the Heisman.

Neither Manziel nor A&M will have the element of surprise on their side in 2013. Nevertheless, the expectations in College Station are as high as they’ve ever been. The Aggies begin spring practice on Saturday, the first steps toward what the Aggie faithful feels could be a season even more special than the last.

As it should be, Sumlin’s fear is complacency. When asked what his Heisman trophy winning quarterback can improve upon this year, Sumlin replied “his footwork, his mechanics, his thought process and overall knowledge of the offense.”

Coachspeak at its finest? Sure, but understand this: 12 opposing teams now have tape on Manziel.

What has helped Manziel, and what will continue to help him, are his improvisation skills that seem better suited for Second City in Chicago than a football field. First glance tells you there’s simply no defensive scheme that will contain this:

Manziel’s “roll outta bed and ball” game is terrifying, but there are habits, tendencies, weaknesses in it. They just have to be found, and there’s plenty of time between now and the start of the 2013 season for opposing coaches to find them. Great mechanics and the ability to understand defenses are qualities every quarterback should rely on; the extra mobility Manziel displays should be a compliment to that, not a substitute.

Then there’s the issue of A&M’s offensive line. The last time we saw it collectively as one unit, it was giving Manziel an eternity to throw in a Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma. Can it hold up similarly in 2013? Although Luke Joeckel is gone — perhaps as the first pick in this year’s draft — Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi are back, so turnover along the O-line isn’t as bad as it could be.

Still, and even with his improvisational skills, Manziel had it made in 2012. Add in a pair of new coordinators with the departure of Kliff KIngsbury to Texas Tech, and the situation isn’t quite the same for Manziel in 2013.

But will he, and A&M, be as successful? Manziel showed he can handle the spotlight in the post-Heisman craze, but now comes the task of improving his game. That’s where the next several months factor in.

Middle Tennessee holds on to win the bizarre (and turnover-filled) Camellia Bowl over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State entered the Camellia Bowl 121st in the country in turnover margin and had lost the battle in nine of their 12 games this season. Arkansas State was only a little bit better in the same category, ranking 81st in turnover margin in 2017. Predictably those kinds of statistics came into play on Saturday night in the Camellia Bowl as the two sides played a bit of hot potato — six giveaways — before MTSU hung on for a 35-30 win to cap off the first day of bowl season in college football.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill had a game that could have been a nightmare for a veteran quarterback but ended up being alright thanks to his defense continually picking him on a night where chunk plays were hard to come by. The signal-caller threw the first of his three interceptions on the night on the first drive of the game but bounced back over the final three quarters, throwing for 232 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. That kind of performance, which included several big throws in the second half, helped secure the first bowl victory of his career and give him the rare distinction of being able to win a postseason game with his father Rick as head coach.

It wasn’t all about the Stockstill combo for MTSU however as their run game produced a pair of touchdowns behind tailbacks Terelle West and Tavares Thomas, and the team’s defense had one of their best outings of the season to limit the Sun Belt’s highest scoring offense to well below all their season averages. Linebacker Darius Harris led the way when his unit was on the field, flying from sideline-to-sideline and racking up 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a two pass break ups. His running mate at linebacker, D.J. Sanders, was equally productive with seven tackles and a 54 yard fumble return for a touchdown just before halftime.

The Red Wolves did what they could to threaten to make things interesting down the stretch but never could get over the hill. The team ran a fake punt to open fourth quarter, resulting in a 21 yard strike from the punter to gunner Chris Murray along the sidelines and appeared to seize momentum after a subsequent  touchdown to Warren Wand. However the defense failed to get a stop and then Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen (337 yards, 3TD, 1 INT) threw a fourth down pass out of the end zone to all but seal a rather lackluster loss for a team that had won six of the last eight coming into the bowl.

Arkansas State also came up a bit short in the record books on the defensive side of the ball as well. In addition to allowing 35 points to MTSU, conference player of the year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones failed to record a sack and thus couldn’t break the NCAA career record (held by former Arizona State and current Baltimore Ravens star Terrell Suggs) of 44 career sacks after entering the game just shy of the mark with 43.5. While the pass rusher did manage to sack Stockstill in the game, the play was negated by a penalty to keep him from taking over on the all-time list.

The victory pushed Middle Tennessee over the .500 mark for the fifth time in six seasons and likely meant a little bit more to the program given how many key injuries the team suffered over the course of 2017 before capturing their first bowl win in eight years. Arkansas State did their best to prevent that from happening as they dropped to 7-5 on the season after a rather bizarre Camellia Bowl that had a little bit of everything.

Defense comes up big to help Middle Tennessee grab Camellia Bowl lead at halftime over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State started off the Camellia Bowl on Saturday night in about the worst way possible with a pair of first quarter interceptions but leaned heavily on their stout defense to manage their way to a 21-10 lead over Arkansas State at halftime in a somewhat low-scoring affair few could have seen coming between these high-scoring offenses.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill tossed an interception on the team’s opening drive of the game but managed to bounce back and throw for  80 yards and a touchdown after another slow start for the veteran signal-caller. Luckily the team’s defense pitched a goal line stand after his first pick and proved to be similarly stout after his second to keep the team in things after such a rough start against the Sun Belt power.

Mistakes proved to be costly for the Red Wolves throughout the night on both sides of the ball as a roughing the punter ruined a potential stop early and led to MTSU tailback Terelle West running right off his left guard for a 45 yard touchdown and a quick lead for the Conference USA squad who wasn’t doing much to move the ball outside of that big play.

The wildest sequence of the bowl season (so far) happened in the closing minutes of the first quarter however, leaving fans, officials and coaches all confused at what exactly just happened. Stockstill appeared to find a receiver over the middle and on the door step of the end zone but ASU’s Justin Clifton had other ideas — stripping the ball and appearing to run it back (with help) for a touchdown. The call went through a lengthy review process that wound up giving Clifton an interception and his offense the ball back at their 18 yard line instead but they ended up punting it away for 61 yards to cap off a truly bizarre few minutes.

Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen had some decent numbers (151 yards passing, one rushing TD) but things just weren’t clicking for what had been the Sun Belt’s most prolific offense during the regular season. The signal-caller fumbled shortly before halftime, which allowed D.J. Sanders to rumble 54 yards with a fumble recovery touchdown that extended MTSU’s lead. The Red Wolves did manage to mount a scoring drive on the next possession to get right back in the game but they’ll need to show more down the stretch if they want to reach the eight win mark for the sixth time in seven seasons.

It’s had a few strange moments but the conclusion to the first Saturday of the bowl season is shaping up rather nicely down in Montgomery, Alabama. However both sides in this one will be sure to focus on correcting a bunch of mistakes after that somewhat whacky first half.

Marshall pushes bowl winning streak to six in escaping with win over Colorado State in New Mexico Bowl

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The Streak lives.  Barely.

Marshall (8-5) came into Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl having won five straight bowl games.  Exiting Albuquerque, Marshall will head back to Huntington armed with a six-game postseason winning streak as they escaped with a 31-28 win over Colorado State (7-6).

The first half was all about the passing of quarterback Chase Litton.  The second half was all about the running game — with a little Litton sprinkled in as well.

Up 21-14 at halftime, Tyler King outran the CSU defense to score on a 90-yard touchdown run very early in the third quarter to give MU a 28-14 lead that had the feeling of putting the game out of reach.  King finished the win with 106 yards rushing, one of two Thundering Herd running backs to top the 100-yard mark as Keion Davis chipped in with a team-high 141 yards.  Davis himself scored on a 68-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give the Herd its halftime lead.

After throwing for 177 in the first half, Litton finished with 262 through the air.  Tyre Brady, who caught six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown, was named the Player of the Game.

Entering the fourth quarter, MU held what walked, talked and looked like an extremely comfortable 31-14 lead.  CSU, however, cut the lead to 31-28 midway through the quarter on a pair of Nick Stevens touchdowns (one passing, one rushing).  Getting the ball back with just over six minutes remaining and pinned back on their own 16-yard line, the Rams, who caught a break when a fumble recovered by the Herd was negated by defensive holding, couldn’t reach midfield on their last drive as their hopes for a come-from-behind win were extinguished after turning the ball over on downs.

(That Michael Gallup catch to briefly extend that last drive, though.  Wow.)

While Marshall extended its winning streak — Doc Holliday is 5-0 as head coach — Colorado State extended a skein in the opposite direction as the Rams have now lost four bowl games in a row.

FCS title game set: defending champ James Madison vs. five-time champ North Dakota State

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If everyone is being honest with themselves, and aside from the opposing fans, this is the matchup we were all looking for.

Friday night, No. 2 North Dakota State (13-1) routed No. 6 Sam Houston State (12-2) 55-13 to claim one spot in the 2017 FCS championship game.  One day later, top seed James Madison (14-0) easily took care of business against No. 5 South Dakota State (11-3), claiming the other spot with a methodical 51-16 semifinal woodshedding.

The top two seeds in this years tournament will now square off Jan. 6 in Frisco, Tex., for the 2017 FCS championship.

James Madison is the reigning national champion, claiming the school’s second-ever title with a 28-14 win over Youngstown State last season.  North Dakota State, meanwhile, will be looking to get back to the trophy mountaintop after they won a record five straight championships from 2011-15.

The Bison will likely be shorthanded for that contest, however, as their two starting cornerbacks — Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush — suffered knee injuries in the semifinal win while their second-leading rusher, Ty Brooks, suffered a shoulder injury.  Despite the game being nearly three weeks away, all three are expected to be sidelined for the contest.