COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel broke the pocket and took off down the middle of Kyle Field, weaving through UTEP's defense for a 49-yard touchdown on Saturday night, it was a familiar sight for the A&M faithful.
It was vintage Johnny Football.
En route to winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy, Manziel dazzled observers with his scrambling ability. This season, he hasn't done it quite as much. Part of that is by design, part of that is a result of his maturation as a passer and recently, it was by necessity, to protect an injured throwing shoulder.
But if Manziel is feeling physically capable and confident enough to run the football without reservation, then the Aggies will be well served as they approach the final three games of the season.
"He's always been capable of that," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.
That ability to make game-changing plays with his feet, in addition to his ability to extend passing plays, are major reasons why Manziel has been so hard to defend in his short career. So far, he's well behind last year's pace when it comes to rushing. Through nine games in 2012, Manziel had 922 yards and 15 touchdowns on 138 carries. This season, he has only 96 attempts for 564 yards and eight touchdowns.
He has been better on third downs when taking off though. He's converting 61.1 percent of his third-down rush attempts for first downs, up from 54.3 percent through his first nine games last season.
Manziel and the A&M coaching staff have said numerous times this year that Manziel has worked on becoming a better pocket passer and having better presence in the pocket. His passing numbers are up from this point a year ago as a result. He has more yards (2,867 to 2,527), passing touchdowns (26 to 16) and a better passer rating (185.0 to 149.5) through nine games this year than he did through nine games last season.
Take Manziel's improvement as a passer and sprinkle in what he showed on Saturday (67 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and you get a pretty tough player to defend.
Twice this season, the Aggies have not had designed quarterback running plays in their game plan. In a win over Arkansas on Sept. 28, they didn't but Manziel still carried the ball nine times on scrambles. The second time was on Oct. 26 against Vanderbilt and that was in order to keep Manziel from putting his body, and his right shoulder in particular, in harm's way, just a week after injuring it against Auburn.
Two weeks removed from the injury, Manziel has shown a knack for avoiding falling on that shoulder when tackled but took advantage of the run calls when they were there. His first touchdown run of the night, a 10-yarder, included him diving for the goal line, signaling confidence and his usual competitive nature, doing what he could to get the job done. In addition to his 67 rushing yards and two touchdowns, he finished 16-of-24 passing for 273 yards and four touchdowns in the Aggies' 57-7 win over UTEP. It was the ninth time in his 22-game career that Manziel has accounted for at least five touchdowns in a game.
The No. 15 Aggies (7-2) host Mississippi State this week before closing out the season with road trips to LSU -- the team that defended him better than anyone last season -- and Missouri. If Manziel, who remains in the Heisman Trophy conversation though not necessarily the consensus favorite, can continue to play like this, it bodes well for the Aggies in their hopes of winning the remainder of their games.