Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) is brought down by Duke Blue Devils and former Alcovy Tigers cornerback DeVon Edwards (27) in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome. (USA TODAY Sports: Daniel Shirey)
ATLANTA — If this was it for Johnny Manziel, he went out in style. And college football certainly will miss one of the most polarizing players to come along in years.
The Texas A&M quarterback put on a show in what most believe will be his final college game, rallying the Aggies to a 52-48 win over Duke in a thrilling Chick-fil-A Bowl on Tuesday at the Georgia Dome.
Toney Hurd Jr.’s 55-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Texas A&M its first lead with 3:33 left in the fourth quarter and turned out to be the difference.
Manziel threw four touchdown passes, rushed for a score and added to his lengthy career highlight reel with a remarkable play that jumpstarted the Aggies’ comeback.
On Texas A&M’s first possession of the second half, with Duke leading 38-17, Manziel took off up the middle, jumped into the air and bounced off a defender before rolling to his left and finding wide-open wide receiver Travis Labhart for a 19-yard touchdown. Labhart caught three touchdown passes on the night.
“The way things go, I seem to make things a little bit harder,” Manziel said of the play. “When I originally left my feet, I thought I was in trouble because I looked down and someone from Duke was staring right back at me. From there, I just shot backwards, bounced out of there and looked up and saw Lab wide open.”
“That’s coaching,” added Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin with a chuckle.
Manziel ran in from 3 yards out to cut Duke’s lead to 41-38 early in the fourth quarter.
Blue Devils quarterback Anthony Boone answered by leading a 14-play, 75-yard drive, capped by his third touchdown pass of the game, a 21-yarder to tight end David Reeves that put Duke up by 10 with 6:48 to play.
Manziel responded with his fourth touchdown pass, tying a Chick-fil-A Bowl record with a 44-yard completion to wide receiver Derel Walker (six catches, 113 yards).
Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. His sophomore season began with an off-the-field controversy regarding autographed memorabilia, but it ended with one of his best performances. He finished 30 of 38 for 382 passing yards and added 73 yards on 11 carries.
His collegiate legacy cemented, Manziel now faces a decision about his future. He declined to announce his intentions after the game, but most believe he is headed for the NFL and will be a first-round pick in the draft, along with two teammates, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans.
Boone went 29-for-45 passes for 427 yards with three touchdown passes and two interceptions. He also ran for a score. Running back Josh Snead had rushing and receiving touchdowns for the Blue Devils, who nearly earned their first bowl win since 1961. Snead gained 104 yards on 17 carries, and he blocked a punt.
“We played our hearts out today,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We played against a great football player. They didn’t turn the ball over and we did. That ended up being the story of a high-scoring slugfest.”
Very little went right for the Aggies (9-4) in the first half. At one point in the first quarter, a frustrated Manziel stormed off the field, slammed his helmet on the ground, had a fiery conversation with some of his teammates and then isolated himself down the sideline.
“We got down really big,” Manziel said. “But the main thing I kept stressing to everybody was, ‘Don’t quit. Don’t look at the scoreboard. No reason to do it. The game is 0-0.’”
Meanwhile, Duke (10-4) was doing everything right. The Blue Devils blocked a punt, recovered an onside kick and answered every Aggies challenge before halftime. Both Duke quarterbacks, Boone and Brandon Connette, ran for touchdowns. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from Boone, helping Duke take a 21-point lead into halftime.
With Duke trailing for the first time in the final minutes, Boone led the Blue Devils into Texas A&M territory, but he was picked off by Nate Askew with 1:19 to play.
Duke finished with a 661-541 edge in total yards.
While the Aggies are expected to lose key pieces to the NFL, the core of Duke’s offense — Boone, Connette, Snead and Crowder — is expected to return next season for Cutcliffe.
“Our seniors just said to our underclassmen, all of us, me included, are responsible for leaving our football program better than we found it each year,” Cutlcliffe said. “That’s been a commitment that all of us have made.”