AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson prefaced his statement with a disclaimer.
He didn’t want to take anything away from Mike Evans, Texas A&M’s spectacular sophomore receiver. Evans dominated Auburn’s defense Saturday, catching 11 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns.
But after defending the Aggies’ offense and watching it again on film, one thing stood out to Johnson on Evans’ catches.
“If you take Johnny Manziel off the field a lot of routes that are coming open don’t ever come open,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said. “There are a lot of timing issues to the throwing game. Coverage is only going to hold up for a certain length of time and your pass rushers have got to get the ball out of the quarterbacks hand or there is no coverage that is any good.”
Johnson said it’s all predicated on timing. With most quarterbacks, it’s easy to figure out their tendencies, tipping off how quickly after the ball is snapped that they’ll release a pass.
But Manziel has never been one to do things the conventional way.
“If you had a quarterback that throws in rhythm and throws on time and know that the ball is going to come out at a certain time then you can do different things to receivers,” Johnson said. “You can press them. You can play roll-up coverage on them. Sometimes a guy can handle him by himself, but when a guy is going to be able to throw the ball in two seconds or seven or eight seconds, then that’s what causes the problem.”
As for defense’s performance overall, Johnson came away pleased with how physical it played. Yes, they gave up 41 points to the Aggies. But that’s normal for Texas A&M, which has scored 40-plus in 10 straight games dating back to last season. The Aggies' up-tempo pace got the Tigers “out of position a few times,” Johnson said, but by and large, they stayed in their gaps.
And then there were 20-25 plays Johnson just conceded to Manziel — even though Auburn did everything right, the sophomore signal-caller still made a play.
“He’s a great player,” Johnson said. “He created issues by moving around and buying time. We couldn’t cover all the scramble routes. He did a fantastic job. We brought pressure on him — not a lot — but when we did very frequently he handled it very well and got the ball out quick.”
With 1:19 to play, three timeouts left and Manziel on their side, Johnson said the Aggies had “all day” to try to put together a game-winning drive.
But Auburn’s defense came up big when it counted. The Tigers didn’t do anything special, either, with Johnson noting they stayed in their regular packages out of necessity. Thanks to the Tigers’ defensive line and linebackers, they were able to walk away with a road victory for the first time in two years.
Johnson credited sophomore linebacker Kris Frost’s takedown of Manziel on third-down as the game-saving play.
“Then we were able to take a very aggressive approach,” he said. “If it had stayed in second-and third-and-medium, it would have been very difficult to come after him with a zero blitz that late. I thought it was just a great effort by the players.”