By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – Since Johnny Manziel took the reins as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback last season, the Aggies have yet to lose a game away from home. When Manziel and his comrades take the field at Tiger Stadium on Saturday afternoon, they will be putting their 10-game road winning streak on the line in one of college football’s toughest environments.
LSU (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) head coach Les Miles once said that Death Valley is where opponents’ dreams come to die. If the Aggies – who are 9-0 on the road with Manziel as their starting QB – are going to get out alive, they’ll need to do it largely on the strength of their explosive offense.
Although Manziel took home the Heisman Trophy a season ago, he has improved his numbers in every passing category in 2013 and appears even more dangerous as a redshirt sophomore.
“The Heisman Trophy winner from last year, Johnny Manziel, is bigger, faster, stronger,” Miles said on Monday. “I see him as a much more complete quarterback, a very good player.”
Manziel’s rushing numbers are down this year, but that’s because of his improvement as a passer. He’s thrown for over 500 yards more than he had through 10 games last season, and has tossed 13 more touchdowns while increasing his total offensive output as well (392.4 yards per game compared to 379.4 at this point last year).
“If there's a better player in college football,” Miles added, “I'd like to know who he is.”
Miles’ defense, which ranks fourth in the SEC in total ‘D’ and yards per play allowed, will be tasked with handling Manziel come Saturday. While the Tigers have limited opponents to 23.5 points per game so has this year, A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC) has burned its opponents for 49.2 points per contest thus far.
Luckily for the Tigers, they’ve got some offensive firepower of their own.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU has flourished. Through 10 games, the Tigers are averaging 460 yards and almost 38 points per game. Like Manziel, Zach Mettenberger has increased his completion percentage, passing yardage, yards per pass and touchdown numbers, and he has a pair of lethal receivers on the outside in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Beckham Jr. and Landry rank third and fourth among SEC receivers, respectively, and Beckham Jr. is among the nation’s leaders in all-purpose yards due to his exceptional abilities as a return man on special teams.
“Odell Beckham, Jr. has gotten loose on just about everybody,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told reporters on Tuesday. “He’s one of the top guys in the country. He’s dynamite with the ball in his hands. We've got to be prepared in our coverage teams.”
While LSU boasts its duo of top receivers, the Aggies boast the top receiver in the SEC in the 6-foot-5 Mike Evans. The big man, who is averaging 22 yards per catch on 57 receptions, has amassed 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns this year, and defenses have not had any answer for his elite combination of size, athleticism and strong hands.
Texas A&M, which ranks near the bottom of the SEC in every major defensive category, has seen its fair share of high-scoring games this year, most notably against Alabama and in their last outing at Mississippi State. Likewise, LSU has been caught in shootouts against Georgia and also MSU, and has had to lean on its offense to win at times.
This weekend’s matchup has the makings of a potential barn burner as well: Two of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, several of the nation’s top receivers, and a pair of capable backs in Jeremy Hill (LSU) and Ben Malena (A&M).
Saturday’s showdown is slated for a 3:30 p.m. Eastern kickoff and will be broadcast nationally on CBS.
Saturday’s meeting will be the 52nd all-time between LSU and Texas A&M…The Tigers currently hold a 28-20-3 advantage in the series…The two schools played for 10 straight years from 1986 through 1995 until the series was discontinued…The teams also played for 16 straight years from 1960-1975, with all 16 of those games taking place in Tiger Stadium…This year’s game will be the second time that LSU and A&M have faced off as members of the SEC (TAMU joined the league in 2012)…LSU leads the series 22-10-1 when it is played in Baton Rouge, including a 21-8-1 mark at Tiger Stadium.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – LSU 24, Texas A&M 19 (College Station, Texas)
2011 – LSU 41, Texas A&M 24 (Arlington, Texas – Cotton Bowl)
1995 – Texas A&M 33, LSU 17 (College Station, Texas)
1994 – Texas A&M 18, LSU 13 (Baton Rouge, La.)
1993 – Texas A&M 24, LSU 0 (College Station, Texas)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Sixth-ranked LSU spotted No. 18 Texas A&M a 12-point lead in the early goings, but the Tigers rallied off 24 straight points before holding on to down the Aggies 24-19 at Kyle Field last season. Jeremy Hill set a new career best with 127 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground, while the LSU defense corralled Johnny Manziel and forced five A&M turnovers. The Tigers held Manziel to 303 yards of total offense, the third-lowest single game output of his Heisman campaign in 2012, and picked him off three times. Manziel managed only 4.9 yards per pass attempt, and LSU proved to be one of only two defenses – Florida being the other – that was capable of harnessing Johnny Football and the Aggies all season long. Although the final score was only a five-point difference, TAMU’s late touchdown came with just a minute to play and the Tigers were clearly in control for most of the second half.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
LSU – Jeremy Hill, Sophomore, Running Back
Hill enters Saturday’s game as the SEC’s second-leading rusher, and he’ll have his fair share of chances to run against a Texas A&M defense that ranks near the bottom of the league in stopping the run. Hill has been an integral part of an explosive LSU offense this season, averaging 107 yards per game on the ground with a 6.8-yard per carry average by himself. He currently leads all SEC backs with 13 touchdowns this year, and he trails only Mike Davis of South Carolina in yards per contest. The Aggies have been gashed on the ground at times this year, and their 213 yards per game allowed on the ground ranks 13th in the league. A&M has allowed more than 200 rushing yards in a game six times this season, including two games of over 300, so expect the Tigers to pound the ball with their 235-pound bruiser early and often at Death Valley this weekend. In Texas A&M’s two losses this season – against Alabama and Auburn – it has surrendered 234 and 379 yards on the ground.
Texas A&M – Johnny Manziel, Redshirt Sophomore, Quarterback
After posting record breaking numbers in 2012 and taking home the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman, it was tough to imagine that Manziel had much room for improvement this season. Despite setting the bar incredibly high for himself, Johnny Football has managed to take it even higher in 2013. Last year through 10 games, Manziel had 3,794 yards of total offense and 33 total touchdowns. This year, he’s churned out 3,924 total yards (392.4 per game, second nationally) and tallied 39 touchdowns for an A&M offense that leads the SEC. Manziel’s passing numbers are up across the board as well: 3,313 yards (2,780 at this point last year), 73 percent completion rate (67.5 percent last year), 31 passing TDs (18 at this point last season), and 10.5 yards per attempt (8.2 through 10 games in 2012). Manziel has weapons around him, most notably in the form of monstrous wide-out Mike Evans, but the Aggies’ offensive attack starts and ends with Johnny Football at the helm. LSU’s defense, which ranks fourth in the conference, will have its biggest test this weekend against Manziel and company.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
LSU – Jalen Mills, Sophomore, Cornerback
Mills was thrust into action as a freshman last year after the departure of Tyrann Mathieu, and the sophomore now leads a young group of corners for LSU as a true sophomore. When Texas A&M comes to town this weekend, Mills will have a big-time challenge against the SEC’s leading receiver, Mike Evans. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Evans is a physical specimen that creates huge mismatches with defensive backs. The 6-foot-1, 189-pound Mills will be at a disadvantage against Evans, as most corners are, but slowing down the Aggies’ big wide-out will be a key for the Tigers defense. Mills has racked up 47 tackles this season, including three sacks, while picking off a pair of passes and deflecting two more. Along with instinctive, hard-hitting safety Craig Loston, expect Mills to be a key factor for LSU as they try to contain Evans, Manziel and the rest of the Aggies’ offense, which has been among the best in college football this season.
Texas A&M – Steven Jenkins, Senior, Linebacker
Jenkins enters this week as Texas A&M’s second-leading tackler, trailing only defensive back Howard Matthews. If Matthews leads the Aggies in tackling this weekend, it means that the A&M defense is in trouble, because LSU and running back Jeremy Hill – who is as big as or bigger than all of TAMU’s starting linebackers – pose a big-time threat in the running game. The Aggies have struggled mightily against the run this year, and Jenkins and the rest of the front seven will need to play well on Saturday to keep Hill and the Tigers contained on the ground. Jenkins has recorded 69 stops in 2013, including five for a loss and a sack to go along with one forced fumble. If he can set the tone for the TAMU defense against the run, the Aggies will stand a much better chance of slowing down a prolific LSU offense that also features explosive receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. No one has been able to shut down LSU this season and, thanks to a powerful offense of their own, Texas A&M won’t necessarily have to do so to win. But Manziel and company would certainly appreciate some help in keeping the Tigers from turning this game into a high-scoring affair.
• Saturday’s game will mark the first meeting between LSU and Texas A&M at Tiger Stadium since 1994 when No. 15 TAMU defeated unranked LSU.
• Texas A&M is seeking a school-record 11th straight road win on Saturday. Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin has won his last 15 road games as a head coach, dating back to his days at Houston.
• Entering the 2013 season LSU has won at least eight games for a school-record 13 consecutive years. The 13 years with at least eight wins ties with Boise State as the longest current streak in college football, and the Tigers can make it 14 straight seasons with a victory against Texas A&M.
• TAMU always looks to start quickly out of the gate: Texas A&M has scored first in 22 of 23 games under Kevin Sumlin. The only game when the Aggies didn’t score first was the 2013 season opener against Rice.
• LSU goes into the Texas A&M game with a 5-3 record under Les Miles following a scheduled open date.
• The Aggies need one all-purpose yard from senior receiver Travis Labhart to have seven players with 500 or more all-purpose yards for the first time in school history. Mike Evans, Trey Williams, Ben Malena, Johnny Manziel, Malcome Kennedy and Derel Walker are already over 500 all-purpose yards for A&M.