When running back Tre Mason scored to put Auburn ahead 45-41 with 1:19 left on Saturday, most people still didn’t think they were going to win. The Tigers gave too much time to Johnny Manziel, and despite his shoulder injury, he was going to lead Texas A&M back on yet another game-winning drive, adding to his legacy.
And why not? The reigning Heisman Trophy winner had already thrown for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns. He had just led the Aggies on a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped off by his lone rushing touchdown of the game. The writing was on the wall.
But somebody forgot to tell that to the Auburn defense.
“They were sitting there with 1:19 left, three timeouts and Johnny Manziel, then you’ve got all day,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.
“We basically had to just play regular defenses. We couldn’t get into any of our prevent stuff and just had to play what we had been taking on third down every play. They were still in a situation where they could have run the ball a few times if they wanted to.”
It was an Auburn defense that had thrived in the fourth quarter through the first six games. The Tigers had only allowed 13 fourth-quarter points prior to Saturday’s game, and they were giving up, on average, 67 yards in the final 15 minutes.
Manziel started that last drive just as everybody expected. He completed a pass to Mike Evans for 19 yards. He rushed for six yards. He connected with Evans again for 22 yards, and the Aggies were already down to the Auburn 18-yard line with 43 seconds left.
But after an incomplete pass, the Tigers finally made a play. Senior defensive end Dee Ford sacked Manziel for a loss of 8 yards, forcing Texas A&M to burn its first timeout.
“[Manziel] just keeps tremendous pressure on you all the time,” Johnson said. “I thought our front guys worked their rear ends off trying to catch him. Occasionally they were successful, but they harassed him a lot.”
On the next play, Manziel scrambled around and looked like he had room to run, but linebacker Kris Frost chased him down and held the Aggies quarterback to a gain of 5. It brought up a critical fourth-and-13 with 18 seconds left. Johnny Football couldn’t possibly deliver again, could he?
The Tigers didn’t even give him a chance. A blitz forced Manziel to try and scramble away , but Ford was waiting for him.
“I didn’t really have a thought process,” Ford said. “I knew they were throwing the ball, and I knew at that point I need to contain Manziel. It’s a credit to the defense. It was a blitz, and I knew that I had to contain the blitz. They were going to flush it to me, and I just needed to make a play.”
When everybody expected Manziel to make a play, it was Ford and this Auburn defense that came through.
"You have to try to bottle up the guy," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "He's phenomenal when things break down. In the fourth quarter, when he came back I thought we were a little bit fresher there, and we made the two big plays toward the end."
Ford had yet to record a tackle prior to the last drive, but he came up with two of the biggest plays of the game, sacking Manziel twice to preserve the victory.
“Priceless,” he said. “It was priceless.”