No. 7 Texas A&M started slowly with its star quarterback on the sidelines, but pulled away when Johnny Manziel returned to the field in the second half to produce a 52-31 season-opening victory over Rice at Kyle Field.
Manziel, suspended for the first two quarters following an NCAA investigation into several sports memorabilia pieces that the reigning Heisman Trophy recipient autographed during the offseason, threw three touchdown passes after entering the game to help the Aggies (1-0) pull away after holding a slim 28-21 lead at halftime. The dynamic sophomore completed 6-of-8 throws for 94 yards during his abbreviated stint.
"(Manziel) was pressing a little bit early...but he led a couple of touchdown drives," Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Mike Evans hauled in two of Manziel's scoring strikes and finished with 84 yards on six catches, while Tra Carson ran for a pair of touchdowns in the win. Matt Joeckel, who started under center in Manziel's place, put up 190 yards on 14-of-19 passing and hooked up with Ricky Seals-Jones on a 71-yard score.
Charles Ross rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns for Rice (0-1), which amassed 509 total yards on an Aggie defense that began the game minus six starters due to suspensions. Taylor McHargue threw for a pair of scores in a losing cause.
McHargue hit on 18-of-29 passes for 180 yards with two interceptions, while adding 78 yards on the ground on nine attempts.
The Aggies punted on two of their first three possessions with Joeckel at the command, but the junior backup caught fire later on and strung together three straight touchdown drives that turned a 7-point deficit into a 28-14 lead late in the opening half.
Joeckel went 5-for-6 for 57 yards in directing a 12-play, 80-yard march capped by Carson's 1-yard plunge just over a minute into the second quarter, then found Seals-Jones wide open over the middle on Texas A&M's ensuing series. The true freshman wideout outraced the Rice secondary for a 71-yard go-ahead score with 9:32 remaining in the half.
A 19-yard punt by the Owls' James Farrimond set the Aggies up at midfield on their next trip, with Joeckel needing less than three minutes to put Texas A&M back in the end zone. Carson ended the 9-play jaunt by bowling over the goal line from two yards out, giving the Aggies a 14-point advantage with 3:42 to go prior to the intermission.
McHargue and Rice had an answer, however. Two consecutive completions to Jordan Taylor, the last a 27-yarder, brought the Owls to the Texas A&M five, and the pair connected again two plays later to pull the underdogs closer. Taylor snatched the ball out of the hands of an Aggies defender for a 5-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 28-21 just 10 seconds before the half expired.
The Aggie defense tightened after the break, however, intercepting McHargue on each of Rice's opening two series of the second half. The first, which came from Tramain Jacobs and was followed by a Manziel 12-yard run on the All- American's first snap of the day, led to Taylor Bertolet's 44-yard field goal that extended A&M's margin to 10 points.
Clay Honeycutt picked off McHargue less than two minutes afterward and returned the turnover 18 yards deep into Owls' territory, setting up Manziel's 23-yard hookup with Evans on a crossing route that put the Aggies up 38-21 just over five minutes into the third quarter.
Rice narrowed the gap again with a 14-play, 79-yard jaunt engineered by Driphus Jackson, who temporarily replaced McHargue at quarterback and kept the drive alive with a 19-yard scamper on 4th-and-1 that gave the Owls a 1st-and- goal. Ross punched it in from a yard out on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it a 10-point spread once again.
The Owls got no closer, though. Manziel moved Texas A&M 93 yards in just six plays, highlighted by a 35-yard strike to Malcome Kennedy that got the Aggies back in the red zone. He followed up by hitting Ben Malena for an 18-yard catch-and-run that lengthened the lead to 45-28.
Rice was stopped on fourth down deep in its own end on the subsequent drive, and a Malena 17-yard run followed by Manziel's 9-yard scoring delivery to Evans put the contest out of reach with 9:48 left to play.
The Aggies' depletions on defense were felt early on, as Rice put up touchdowns on each of its two initial drives to grab a 14-7 lead.
McHargue broke loose for a 57-yard run on a read option to headline a five- play, 96-yard sequence culminating with Ross' 1-yard plunge that put the Owls ahead just 3:22 in.
Texas A&M countered with a 10-play, 75-yard march that Malena ended with a 4- yard touchdown run, but Ross hauled in a 19-yard pass from McHargue to give Rice a 14-7 edge near the midway mark of the first quarter. The score was set up by McHargue's 18-yard run on 3rd-and-4.
Prior to the game, Texas A&M announced that three defensive starters -- linebacker Steven Jenkins, cornerback De'Vante Harris and end Gavin Stansbury -- would be suspended for the first two games along with backup wide receiver Edward Pop for unspecified violations. Defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and free safety Floyd Raven had previously been suspended for the contest, with corner Deshazor Everett forced to sit out the first half for an off-field incident ... Rice suspended cornerback Phillip Gaines, the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, for the opener due to a violation of team rules ... The schools faced one another annually from 1914-95 but were meeting for the first time since the Southwest Conference disbanded in 1995 ... Texas A&M failed to score first for the first time since October 29, 2011 against Missouri, a streak of 18 consecutive games.