Alabama denies Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M of another signature win

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is taken down by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams during the fourth quarter Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is taken down by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams during the fourth quarter Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — AJ McCarron and Alabama were not about to let Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M get another season-defining victory.

McCarron threw four touchdown passes, Vinnie Sunseri returned an interception 73 yards for a score — sidestepping Johnny Football on the way to the end zone — and 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 to a 20-0 lead in Tuscaloosa on the way to victory that all but won the Heisman for Manziel.

“I’m so proud of our players for the resiliency they showed getting behind 14-0,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “Just slowly and methodically coming back in the game and building up the lead.”

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.

“I thought his play was Johnny-like,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Anybody who’s seen him play, that’s about right.”

Alabama’s best defense was its offense. The Tide gained 568 yards and kept Manziel pacing on the sideline with a couple of long drives.

This rematch was hyped for months, heightened by offseason drama over Manziel that culminated with the sophomore getting suspended for half of the opening game after an NCAA investigation into whether he was paid for signing autographs.

Manziel only answered questions about the game afterward. He was one of many Aggies reminding everyone that the loser of this matchup last year won the SEC and BCS titles.

“This wasn’t the Super Bowl,” Manziel said. “Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn’t over.”

Bama-A&M II lived up to the billing. But this SEC heavyweight matchup was no 9-6 Game of the Century. The offenses were all but unstoppable.

“They’re unbelievable,” Sunseri said. “There’s a reason he won the Heisman. He’s an unbelievable player; I don’t care what he does off the field. He has great receivers and everything. We knew it was going to go back and forth, and we just had to try to slow him down.”

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.

The Tide 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, and the crowd was alive again.

Evans finished with 279 yards on seven catches.

In need of a time-consuming drive, Alabama 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.

Saban’s defense had given up 628 yards, the most ever allowed by Alabama, and 42 points, but the Tide had won.

“I know you tried to make it out (to be) a 61-year-old guy against that good quarterback, but we didn’t have much of a chance in that game,” Saban said. “We had a lot better chance our team against their team.”