ATLANTA — On the eve of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, at an empty Georgia Dome, Duke punter Will Monday exchanged fist bumps with a teammate before preparing to take the field for the Blue Devils final practice.
Lets do this, one more time.
Regardless of what the future holds for No. 22 Duke (10-3) whether its more primetime, marquee bowls or something slightly less glamorous 2013 always will stand out as special, the season the Blue Devils did things never done before.
So its fitting the season that has played out like a dream, a season that began with a January meeting after the Belk Bowl defeat, ends on the last day of the year, in an 8 p.m., ESPN date with a traditional, name-brand program in No. 20 Texas A&M (8-4).
The Aggies, too, are on the verge of ending a never-before-seen run, one that lasted two years with the first redshirt freshman to ever win the Hesiman Trophy: Johnny Manziel.
Much like the 2013 Blue Devils will stand the test of time, so, too, will Manziel, even if he is followed by scrambling, gunslinging quarterbacks who top his numbers. It would be difficult for a player to be more heavily scrutinized than Manziel was in the aftermath of his Heisman Trophy win, with the circus growing so severe he was forced to take online classes.
One cannot talk about the Aggies without talking about Johnny Football. So, naturally, Duke coach David Cutcliffe and his Texas A&M counterpart, Kevin Sumlin, were asked about him several times during their final news conference.
I think he moved from an athlete that was playing quarterback, to a quarterback thats an athlete, Sumlin said. I think hes improved as a passer, improved in his knowledge of not only what were doing, but his knowledge of defenses, and I think that shows.
The thing that is different about Johnny is his ability to make our play call right, Sumlin later added. Whether its a really, really bad call or not, he has the ability to change that, not only at the line of scrimmage, but after the ball snap, which is a whole different dimension.
Stopping Manziel is not realistic, Cutcliffe said, suggesting the goal of slowing him would be more appropriate. Its quite possible Dukes best option for neutralizing Manziel isnt a defensive player or a particular call. It might be on the other side of the ball.
Keeping him off the field is really the best way to do it, ESPN analyst Rece Davis said of the best way to slow Manziel. So that means you have to be productive on offense. You cant settle for field goals at the end of drives. Youve got to play your game, but youve got to be aggressive and realize that just when you think you have enough points, you probably need some more.
Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will head to SEC country right after this game and begin his tenure as Floridas offensive coordinator, compared Dukes mindset to the one it had against Georgia Tech.
Its not a lot different than when you play an option team, Roper said, who has the ability to minimize your possessions and put points on the scoreboard.
Las Vegas bookkeepers set the over-under for the game at 75 points, the highest number for any of the 35 bowls. The Aggies defense struggled against the run and the pass, ranking last in the SEC in the first category and 12th of 14 teams in the latter.
Cutcliffe downplayed those stats, saying the strength of the SEC competition Texas A&M faced makes the defense appear worse than it is.
Of course, it helps that the Aggies Manziel-led offense normally was more than capable of making up for defensive shortcomings.
Johnny is going to want to ball out in what is likely his final game, Davis said. The real question in the game is can Duke keep up?
The Blue Devils have faced questions about their abilities all season. Duke has once last chance in 2013 to answer its doubters.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley