Will the Texas defense be a Heisman kingmaker again?

Al Messerschmidt

Collin Klein has fallen behind Johnny Manziel in the Heisman race after a disastrous defeat in Waco juxtaposed with a heroic A&M win in Tuscaloosa. But will Manny Diaz's defense anoint a Big 12 QB as the Heisman for a second consecutive season?

In 2011, Texas was coming off a glorious 27-25 victory that sent off the Aggies to the SEC with a bitter and familiar taste of failure. Their next opponent was the RG3 Baylor Bears, who were building Griffin's Heisman candidacy after a stunning home upset against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Texas helped RG3's candidacy in two distinctive manners. First, they talked up the matchup. Mack Brown praised Manny Diaz's ability to shutdown dual threat QB's and said he called him for the Texas DC job after watching his Mississippi State defense shut down Michigan's Denard Robinson. "If he can corral Cam Newton I think we can get Robert Griffin," Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro confidently declared.

Manny Diaz said "we don't want to go to New York" meaning they didn't want to provide Griffin with highlights for his reel in the Heisman ceremony. Defensive leader Blake Gideon added, "We don't want to have the Heisman trophy won against us."

Then on the field, Griffin lit up Texas for 320 passing yards with four total touchdowns as Baylor ran over Texas 48-24. Then he won the Heisman trophy.

This season the Texas defense has embraced the identity of kingmaker with Mack Brown praising multiple opponents as Heisman candidates after they trashed the embattled Texas defense. Candidates endorsed by Brown include Geno Smith, Landry Jones, and now potentially Collin Klein.

The season long putridity of the Texas defense against teams that employ the quarterback in their run game suggests that Klein should have a huge day. However he faces competition from Texas' former rival A&M, who are back in the picture with young QB you may have heard about.

If Texas is going to elevate Klein to the Heisman podium he'll have to overcome Johnny Manziel.

The origin of his nickname "Johnny Football" is unclear, although Texas A&M has quickly moved to copyright it all the same. His legend has grown considerably throughout the season.

He started this season hot against the Florida Gators before Will Muschamp's defense shut him down in the 2nd half en route to a narrow 20-17 victory. LSU absolutely throttled him but the rest of the SEC was left a smoldering wreckage by his play. Later he shredded Alabama's vaunted defense for 345 total yards, two touchdowns, and zero turnovers.

The timing of these performances is always key for Heisman candidates. Much like in a presidential election, early season gaffes or failures rarely have the impact that late season performances have on the race.

After Manziel orchestrated the Aggies' triumphant upset in Tuscaloosa over the defending national champions, Collin Klein's Wildcats lost their No. 1 ranking and BCS title game opportunity in a 55-24 upset at Waco against the Baylor Bears.

Klein's only hope of keeping up with Manziel's win over Alabama would be to clinch the Big 12 championship with a statement victory over Texas on primetime Saturday night.

Also factoring into the race are the presidential campaign-esque selling of the player's mythos. Manziel is defined by his nickname "Johnny Football" which casts him as a simple, small town kid born to dominate the gridiron. A 6'1" 200 pound rural prodigy with "you have to see it to believe it!" quicks and magical abilities.

"Optimus" Klein, on the other hand, is known as a machine of war. He gritted the Wildcats to 10 wins in 2011 playing through countless public and private injuries while leading the Big 12 in rushing attempts. The emergence of players around him have allowed him to ease back on the number of total carries but he still carries the offense and has the ball in his hands on virtually every 3rd down play. You think Klein and you think of a bruising, tough leader in the mold of Tim Tebow.

Most analysts will dig a little deeper and examine the stats of our two heroes:

Candidate

Passing completions/attempts

Passing yards

Passing TDs-INTs

Yards per pass

Rush attempts

Rush yards

Rush TDs

Yards per carry

Total yards

Yards per play

Johnny “Football”

273-400 (68.2%)

3419

24-8

8.5

184

1181

19

6.4

4600

7.9

“Optimus” Klein

172-258 (66.7%)

2306

14-6

8.9

171

787

20

4.6

3093

7.2

With one fewer game under his belt, Klein has a ways to go to catch the production of Manziel. He's not going to close the 1k yard gap in passing yards, and probably won't need to throw the ball against the Texas defense unless Snyder is in a particularly vindictive mood.

However, with a 200 rushing yard explosion against the Longhorns there's a chance that Klein can fill the gap enough to blunt the damage of a statistical comparison between the two stars.

The stats reveal that Manziel is the slightly more explosive player (Klein's deep passing narrows the gap in yards per play). Both have done a remarkable job of avoiding turnovers while catalyzing the running and passing games in their respective offenses.

Here's where the true analyst digs deeper than the media legends, the naked statistics, and examines deeper questions such as: What are these player's teams asking them to do to secure victory on the football field? Whose job is more difficult? Which player's achievements merit the greater recognition?

Johnny and the A&M offense:

The Aggies run a no-huddle, blazing fast version of the spread offense that is rich in looks and formations but conservative in total number of concepts. They have a simple running game based on zone blocking and draw plays with option elements sprinkled in. They frequently play with four receivers split wide with three to one side. Against these "trips" formations and quick tempo, defenses are forced to play simple coverages and give the QB easy reads.

They have a receiving corp led by 6-5 redshirt freshman Mike Evans, who's on his way to superstardom, and senior inside receiver Ryan Swope. The backfield is solid with power back Christine Michael and the elusive Ben Malena.

The real treasure of the A&M offense is the line, which is anchored by senior center Patrick Lewis and their junior offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Blake Matthews. Joeckel projects as a top five draft pick while Matthews may go in the first round as well, provided they declare early.

Manziel's job in principle is to make the quick throws and occasional deep lobs that keep the offense on the field and beat down the defense until they break and yield big plays. He's accurate in this role, but he he would be an average passer in the Big 12. His brilliance comes from his outrageous quickness, ability to throw on the run, and turnover avoidance.

The last point is key, most quarterbacks who look to scramble and get creative when the quick read isn't there are punished with interceptions and hits. Aside from his game against LSU, Manziel has been able to avoid crippling mistakes while still employing an unpredictable, scrambling style that forces defenses to treat him with fire-proof gloves. The additional big plays he creates for their offense with his scrambling elevates them considerably.

Adjusting to A&M's lightning quick tempo AND Johnny Football's destructive improvisations is extremely difficult. Alabama had already given up 20 points when they finally calmed down and were able to contain the wild freshman. By then it was too late, and he made them pay with a few big throws downfield to finish them off.

Klein and the KSU offense:

The Kansas State offense has grown considerably more talented in recent years. The receiving corp of Chris Harper, Tramaine Thompson, and Tyler Lockett can abuse defenses that overly focus on the KSU run game. Running back John Hubert is a capable runner with good vision and quick feet in the hole. After the receivers, the prize of the offense are the tight end Travis Tannahill and fullback Braden Wilson. Both are punishing blockers and Tannahill adds a play action receiving threat.

The offensive line is fairly athletic, but none of them will be selected in the 1st round of the NFL draft. They get by through overall unit cohesion and the Wildcat playbook, which is diverse and difficult for defenses to react against.

Snyder has successfully married the Power run game, the Zone Read, traditional option football, play action passing, and the spread passing game into one cohesive offense. Collin Klein is the glue that holds it all together.

He has the intelligence and understanding of the offense to operate the zone read, option, and spread passing concepts that require quick reads by the quarterback. Then he also possesses the power, patient running, and breakaway speed to be the featured runner in the KSU power run game.

Then he's making big throws downfield to his receivers in the play action passing game.

Kansas State can load up the field with big personnel and punish a defense with power running and vertical passing or they can spread them out with four or five wide receivers and gash them with quick throws or QB draws up the middle.

To make this system work, Klein has to possess both remarkable versatility and incredible toughness as the ball is in his hands far more often than not. He has to survive the punishment of taking shots from blitzers while throwing downfield AND the big hits that come from carrying the ball in every short-yardage situation. It's a wonder he's even still alive, much less playing at a high level.

The Verdict:

While Johnny Football is one of the most exciting players in college football, I believe Klein's skills and accomplishments are more impressive. Manziel's campaign is filled with arguments like "he's the leading rusher in the SEC!" which ignore his struggles against two of the three good defenses he faced as well as the fact that the SEC West is not as tough as in prior seasons and features few feature backs.

Klein's case is more subtle. While he's not as explosive as Manziel, he still offers a lot of big plays while also making Kansas State unbearably difficult to stop in situational football. In short-yardage he's nearly unstoppable while his growth in the passing game makes 3rd and long difficult as well, as Oklahoma can attest after he completed 7 of 12 third down throws (and picked up one of the failures on 4th) in Norman.

With a defeat, Texas can deny Oklahoma the Big 12 title, possibly deny A&M a Heisman trophy, and perhaps avoid a brutal payback at Manziel's hands in the Cotton Bowl. With a win they secure a slightly better bowl bid and gain a victory that somewhat counterbalances the disappointing defeats that threaten to define the season.

Perhaps most importantly, how Klein handles the Texas defense and how Heisman voters treat his matchup with Manziel will speak volumes to the public perception of the battle between the SEC and Big 12 for conference respect.

Ironically the best thing UT can do to earn the Big 12 points is score just enough to keep the game competitive while putting up a helpless defense of Klein. The latter, at least, is just about right in their wheelhouse.

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