Chick-fil-A Bowl: Texas A&M 52, Duke 48: And Then What? Johnny Football Bowed Out

Joe Robbins

Whether you want to credit magic or simply talent, Johnny Manziel put on a dazzling show in what will likely be his final college football game

What is it that Johnny Manziel has that allows him to do the things he does? I'm looking at the highlights from the Chick-fil-A Bowl on ESPN right now, and the sidebar calls it "More Manziel Magic." But magic seems somehow inadequate to describe what Manziel does, the alchemy of athleticism and skill and reckless abandon that makes him so fun to watch and so hard to figure out.

And it was largely -- not exclusively, but largely -- because of Johnny Manziel that Texas A&M just won a football game they had no business winning. But it's not really surprising. It's just what Manziel does.

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It is almost impossible to conceive the Aggies winning this game if you watched the first 30 minutes of it. Duke never trailed in the first half. After taking a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, the Blue Devils never led by less than two scores before halftime. At the break, they were leading 38-17, and the question seemed to be less one of whether Texas A&M would lose and more one of how ugly the game would get.

Then Johnny Manziel came out in the third quarter, and did something you have never seen on a football field before. Call it magic or athleticism or whatever you want, but this happened Tuesday night in the Georgia Dome.

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And that was the first time that anyone watching the game started to think: You know, they just might win it. The Aggies were still down by two touchdowns at that point, but things like this don't happen in normal football games, and it was suddenly clear that the Chick-fil-A Bowl was not going to be a normal football game.

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Things only got better for A&M and Johnny Manziel from there. The defense gave up another drive to Duke, setting up a field goal attempt that would have put the Blue Devils back up by three scores, and maybe for good -- but it missed. And Texas A&M went right back down the field for another touchdown. Seven-point game.

Duke followed that up with a successful field goal. Ten-point game. A&M drove for a touchdown. Three-point game. Duke scored again. Ten-point game. With less than seven minutes left. And when Texas A&M scored yet again, to cut the lead to three points yet again, reality started to sink in: The Aggies defense, a beleaguered unit that would end up surrendering 661 yards of total offense on the night, was going to have to get a stop to make all of Manziel's efforts worth anything.

Which is exactly what they did. Toney Hurd Jr. picked off Anthony Boone and raced to the end zone for the touchdown that would give Texas A&M its first and only lead of the night, 52-48, with less than six minutes left to go. A&M would pick off Boone on the next Duke drive to close out the win.

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So it wasn't Manziel in the end, but it was what he did in between the three-touchdown deficit and the game-winning interception that made the win possible. He finished the game 30-of-38 for 382 yards and four touchdowns, with 73 yards and another touchdown on 11 rushing attempts -- a line that is stellar and yet somehow fails to capture the way he played, because it doesn't include the impossible touchdown pass or any of the other things that make Manziel the most compelling player in the country.

Or made him the most compelling player in the country, anyway. There's no real doubt that Manziel will soon declare he's entering the 2014 NFL Draft. With that, his two years playing college football will be over. Two years is all it took for Manziel to become the starter at A&M, win the Heisman Trophy, generate more controversy than any other player in the game, and then storm out of the tunnel late on New Year's Eve 2013 and lead the biggest comeback in Texas A&M history.

And maybe that's all for the better. Because this is how we should remember Johnny Manziel, blazing his way across our screens, doing things that we didn't think were possible, taking the spotlight and thriving in it -- embracing it.

It's a little bit later now, and the sidebar on ESPN is now calling it "Must-See Manziel." Maybe that's the best way to describe it. Because when Johnny Manziel had the football, even if his team was down by three touchdowns -- especially if his team was down by three touchdowns -- you had to see what happened next.

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