COLLEGE STATION, Texas – AJ McCarron and Alabama was not about to let Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M get another signature win.
McCarron nearly matched the Heisman Trophy winner with four touchdown passes, and Vinnie Sunseri returned an interception 73 yards for a score – sidestepping Johnny Football on the way to the end zone, too – as No. 1 Alabama paid back No. 6 Texas A&M with a 49-42 victory Saturday.
Alabama (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) spotted the Aggies (2-1, 0-1) a 14-0 lead, shades of last season when A&M jumped out to a 20-0 lead in Tuscaloosa on the way to victory that all but won the Heisman for Manziel.
McCarron and the Tide didn’t take as long to respond this time, ripping off the next 35 points. McCarron tossed three touchdowns in the first half to put Alabama up 28-14. Sunseri’s pick-6 made it 35-14 less than three minutes into the third.
Manziel was his spectacular self, throwing for a career-best 464 yards and five TDs. But a first-half interception in the end zone swung the game the Tide’s way, and his third-quarter pick and whiff on the tackle put the Aggies in a deep hole.
Alabama’s best defense was its offense. The Tide gained 568 yards and kept Manziel on the bench with a couple of long drives.
The rematch was hyped for months, heightened by offseason drama over Manziel that culminated with the sophomore getting suspended for half the opening game after an NCAA investigation into whether he was paid for signing autographs.
Bama-A&M lived up to the advanced billing. But this SEC heavyweight matchup was no 9-6 Game of the Century. The offenses were all but unstoppable.
A&M’s defense was leaky in its first two games against far weaker opponents. Against Alabama, even with the return of four key players from various suspensions, it put up little resistance.
And while the Tide’s offense wore out the Aggies, its defense struck a big blow.
Manziel threw deep down the middle to Malcome Kennedy, but Jarrick Williams had tight coverage for Alabama and tipped the pass into the air. Sunseri came down with it and was off in the other direction, stutter-stepping as Manziel slid on by while trying for a one-arm takedown. The safety broke another tackle on the way into the end zone and Alabama was up 35-14.
Manziel walked slowly across the field to the A&M sideline, taking a couple of glances toward the end zone and Alabama’s celebration.
A crowd of 87,596 that was booming like a jet engine earlier fell silent. They were hoping to see the Aggies get their third victory against a No. 1 team, and second straight against Alabama.
Alabama was poised to go up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter when Texas A&M’s defense slammed into T.J. Yeldon a couple of yards from the goal line, causing a fumble the Aggies recovered at the 5.
Two plays later, Manziel found Mike Evans deep. The big receiver broke away from a tackler and went 95 yards for a score that made it 42-35 with 8:04 left. Manziel sprinted out of his end zone toward the other to celebrate. The crowd was alive again.
Evans finished with 279 yards on seven catches.
In need of a time-consuming drive, leaned on Yeldon and McCarron. On third-and-goal from the 5, McCarron faked the hand off, rolled right and flipped to Jalston Fowler for the touchdown to make it 49-35 with 2:28 left.
Manziel threw one more TD with 15 seconds left, but Alabama grabbed the onside kick and that was that.
Nick Saban’s defense had given up 628 yards and 42 points, but the Tide had won. And the Aggies found out just how tough it is to win two in a row against the Tide. In seven seasons under Saban, only LSU has done it.
It looked promising early for the Aggies. Manziel and Evans hooked up three times for long passes on their first two drives, setting up two short touchdowns that put A&M up 14-0 halfway through the first quarter. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart had all offseason to figure out a way to stop Manziel and the Aggies, and were still flummoxed.
The answer would be offense and McCarron responded with a 22-yard TD pass to Kevin Norwood, a 44-yard score on a flea-flicker to DeAndrew White and a 51-yarder in which Kenny Bell did most of the work after a short throw.