The Aggies enter Tuesday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl averaging 43.6 points on the year—the fifth-highest scoring offense in the nation—with last season's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at the helm.
"It's pretty incredible when you look at his two-year totals and numbers that he's been able to put together," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "The other thing is he's exciting. He ad-libs. He's consistent. He plays really, really well every time he plays the game."
Manziel uses his unique ability to scramble out of the pocket, avoid sacks and turn busted plays into big gains by tucking the ball and turning upfield himself or finding an open receiver.
"He is a very unique challenge, to say the least," Cutcliffe said. "He's obviously surrounded by good players. They're extremely efficient offensively and well-coached. Then you throw in his ability to create. I've been doing this a long time. I don't think I've ever seen anybody ad-lib on the field better."
For the Aggies (8-4), it all starts with the offensive line, which features an All-American and likely first round NFL draft pick in senior tackle Jake Matthews. After switching from the right side of the line to his current position at left tackle, Matthews has greatly improved his draft stock and used his versatility to gauge holes in opposing defensive lines to make way for Texas A&M's zone-read running scheme.
Behind the Aggies' offensive line, which has only allowed 21 sacks all season, Manziel distributes the ball to a bevy of talented wide receivers, but none for effectively than All-American Mike Evans. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore has racked up 1,322 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches on the year. A former basketball player, Evans uses his frame to overpower defensive backs, averaging more than 20 yards per reception. But Evans is by no means the only target for Manziel—three other Texas A&M receivers have more than 40 catches on the season.
"Our last game we got to go up against somebody like [Evans], Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State," Blue Devil cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "They both have similar size, similar speed. But other than those two, I think it doesn't get much better than that in terms of size and speed and athleticism, it's the total combination."Although Manziel leads the Aggie rushing attack with 686 yards, senior Ben Malena also provides a spark in an offense oftentimes dominated by Manziel and his playmaking ability. Malena has rushed for more than 500 yards and scored 10 touchdowns, pacing a Texas A&M rushing game that supplements the dangerous passing attack.
"They've got an All-American at tackle and they've got outstanding people up front. They have the ability to run zone read, which means certainly the ball is going to go to the back," Cutcliffe said. "They can dictate power. They can dictate just giving the ball off on zones, stretch, and their backs all have great ability."For the Aggie defense, this season has been a struggle to keep opponents off the board enough to allow the high-powered offense to win games. Texas A&M allows 30.9 points per game, which ranks 88th in the country, and has given up 38 or more points four times this year. The Aggies often find themselves in shootouts, as their fast-paced offense scores quickly and leaves the defense with little time to rest and regroup.
"I mean, they've got the right ingredients," Cutcliffe said. "They play in a league to where they're challenged every week in a huge way. So these are tested, experienced football players."
The Texas A&M defense took a huge hit last week when freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne was arrested for possession of marijuana and subsequently suspended by the Aggies. In his first season in College Station, Claiborne led Texas A&M with 89 tackles. Without Claiborne on the field, fellow linebacker Steven Jenkins will have play an especially important role in Tuesday night's game. Jenkins, a senior, also registered 89 tackles on the year.
The Aggies already allow more than 220 rushing yards per game, and the loss of Claiborne will only make stopping the run tougher for Texas A&M.
But the real key for the Blue Devils (10-3) will be to limit Manziel, something that only LSU has truly been able to accomplish over the past two seasons. In what many believe will be Johnny Football's final game as an Aggie, finding a way to pressure Manziel and limit his escape routes will be the most essential task for Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his squad, which has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season.
"We have to work hard on our contained rush and really change it up with different people spying and triggering at different times and certain type of blitzes that maybe, maybe, can predict which way he's going to go," Knowles said. "But it is so hard with him because he is so dynamic."