Behind Enemy Lines: Texas A&M

Before every football game this year, The Blue Zone is going to sit down with a football writer from the opposing school’s student newspaper to get the scoop on their team and season.

This week, The Chronicle’s Daniel Carp spoke to The Battalion's Sports Editor James Sullivan about this week’s Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup between Duke and Texas A&M.

The Chronicle: Duke is a team that has taken most of the country by surprise this year with 10 wins, an ACC Coastal Division title and an invitation to a bowl game of this magnitude. If someone told you back in August that Texas A&M was going to be playing Duke in its bowl game, what would you have said to them?

James Sullivan: I honestly would have thought they were joking. Back then, first of all we thought Texas A&M was going to be playing in a BCS game or potentially the national title. Chick-fil-A would have been a disappointment given the rankings at the time. On the other hand, Duke—no offense to you guys—was considered on the lower end of spectrum of the ACC. After having watched Duke play a couple of games, it's given me a different perspective of who they are, but I would have been shocked at the beginning of the year.

TC: When you talk about Texas A&M, it all starts with Johnny Manziel. I got a little sense of it this morning when I attended his press conference but as someone who has watched him all season, can you put into context the magnitude of every game that he plays in terms of the media attention and the circus that surrounds him as a character in the college football landscape?

JS: This morning was the first time you've talked to him, but I've only talked to him a grand total of about four or five times maybe. He doesn't get with the media a lot, and it's a monumental occasion when he does. Everyone shows up. You'll see the average press conference at A&M it's just the local guys, a few web sites and maybe someone from out of town from the Dallas Morning News. When Johnny shows up, ESPN flies in with the big shots and anyone from anywhere is coming to see him talk.

He has this magnetic personality. People love talking to him. He is extremely comfortable at the podium, which surprised me when I first initially talked with him because he's so calm and collected. His style of play is so chaotic in the way he is able to perform on the field, it's almost directly opposite of the way he is with the media. It's been fun being able to be around that kind of atmosphere.

TC: We're assuming that Tuesday is going to be the last game he plays at A&M before entering the NFL draft. You've gotten to see a lot of good SEC football these last couple of years, try to put into perspective what he has been able to accomplish and what kind of mark it's going to leave on that program.

JS: When A&M joined the SEC, I thought they put themselves in the position to take over the state of Texas recruiting-wise and build itself into a national brand—to become an elite power. It has all the right ingredients, it just had never been able to put it all together. Johnny acted as that catalyst and was able to thrust A&M into the national spotlight during its first year in the conference, when it maybe should have been 7-5 or 8-4 at best, we end up 10-2 in our first year—that was ridiculous. Johnny has been arguably one of the most important people to ever play in maroon and white, and he will continue to be one of the most important characters in A&M football history for what he's done to put them on the map not only in the SEC, but on the national stage.

TC: Let's go a little more into X's and O's. Everybody starts with Manziel, but Texas A&M has one of the most dynamic offenses in the country and is stocked full of weapons. What's it like to get to watch a guy like Mike Evans week in and week out?

JS: He is an absolute physical freak. It's ridiculous watching him because he was actually a basketball player who tried out for the football team during his senior year of high school. He plays downfield like he would if you were trying to rebound a jump ball. He boxes out defenders and he is so physically intimidating. Defensive backs just cannot outmaneuver him, and he has the size and speed to outrun guys down the field. He really is one of the best receivers I have ever seen. In terms of being NFL ready, Mike has been there since last year. He has the demeanor and size to play with those NFL defensive backs.

TC: Evans' basketball background doesn't surprise me, because I don't know if you saw but he actually threw down a pretty monster dunk at halftime of the Atlanta Hawks game Saturday night. Someone who doesn't possess Evans' basketball skills is Johnny Manziel—you probably saw him blow that layup on SportsCenter. Are you glad Manziel stuck to football?

JS: You have no idea. A&M's basketball team isn't that fantastic—compared to Duke's it's basically like nothing. But Johnny would not be able to help us out on the basketball court too much.

TC: You talk about A&M with such a dynamic offense, they have been slowed down in the last two games of the season. What did they see from opposing defense that helped keep such an explosive group at bay?

JS: I think LSU, their defense was just so motivated. John Chavis, their defensive coordinator, seems to have Johnny figured out, and I think he's the only man in the country who has been able to do it thus far. A&M kind of walked into that game thinking they would be able to take down the Tigers in Death Valley, and they contained Johnny. He wasn't able to escape.

Missouri was obviously closer, but Johnny struggled with the shoulder injury he sustained against Auburn. I think it was the fact that Missouri had more motivation to beat A&M than A&M had to beat Missouri. The Tigers were fighting for a chance to play in the SEC title game and A&M obviously did not have that same motivation, and Missouri just outplayed A&M on the field because they wanted it more.

TC: A&M's defense has struggled this season and it looks like we could have a shootout on our hands Tuesday. What has plagued that unit throughout the season?

JS: It lost a lot of veteran leadership after last season. The defense overperformed last year. This year they had a lot more talent, but didn't have the experience to play with the guys from the big-time schools in the conference. They got overwhelmed by some of the types of offenses that the SEC schools runs—the ground-and-pound running backs that the SEC is known for, and some of the high-flying offenses like Missouri. A&M had to play a lot of freshmen and young guys that did not have the playing time and the lead to be able to do in a lot of those situations. They were forced into places they didn't want to be down the stretch.

TC: And just to wrap up, I'm going to put you on the spot here. What's your score prediction for the Chick-fil-A Bowl?

JS: We're going to see a lot of points. I'll go 49-42, I think A&M wins. Especially with Johnny, this is probably going to be his last game and I expect there to be an announcement soon as well. It's going to be a coin toss—I think Duke is a lot better than a lot of people give them credit for. Lots of Aggies fans are thinking this is going to be a blowout. They just don't recognize how much of a threat Duke really is.


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