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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
AJ McCarron displays maturity in win

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron needed one game plus 55 minutes to lead his offense into the end zone against No. 1 LSU. By then, however, the sophomore from Mobile already had delivered the No. 2 Crimson Tide to the promised land.

AJ McCarron
Sophomore AJ McCarron's maturity showed during the rematch with LSU.

The box score shows that Alabama kicked five field goals and that McCarron never threw a touchdown pass. The Tide's lone touchdown, a 34-yard run by Trent Richardson with 4:36 to play, gave Alabama the 21-0 lead that will be recorded in the history books.

But you will have to think long and hard to find a more dominant performance by a quarterback operating between the 10s. With masterful play-calling by departing offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and a nerveless performance by the 6-foot-4, 205-pound McCarron, Alabama won the Allstate BCS Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.

McCarron completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards. He may not have thrown a touchdown pass, but he didn't come close to throwing an interception. McCarron moved up or rolled out on play after play to blunt the pressure of an LSU defense that came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with 36 sacks on the season. He made one correct decision after another. That's why he was named the game's offensive MVP.

And he did it all without his best receiver. Senior Marquis Maze suffered a leg injury on a 49-yard punt return that set up the Tide's first field goal in the first quarter and didn't play another down.

"We've been leaning on No. 3 all year," McCarron said of Richardson, the winner of the Doak Walker Award given to the top running back in the nation. "He's our workhorse. I mean, he's our main guy. And we knew coming into the game somebody else had to step up, and Coach just gave me an opportunity."

Richardson pounded the Tigers' defense for 169 rushing/receiving yards in the 9-6 loss to LSU on Nov. 5. He finished the regular season with 1,583 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. Given his talent and his ability to produce, it seems counter-intuitive that the Crimson Tide would come out throwing.

"Not only counter-intuitive but kind of back-asswards," McElwain assessed with a laugh.

McCarron's numbers (16-28-1, 199 yards, two sacks) in the regular-season loss to LSU weren't bad, but he had trouble making plays when Alabama needed them. LSU's defensive talent can be unnerving for a first-year starter.

But once McCarron saw the Tigers, he adjusted, just as he adjusted all season in his role replacing two-year starter Greg McElroy, who led the Crimson Tide to the BCS title two years ago.

"He played so well. I was so happy to see it. It was so fantastic. … He was so precise," McElroy, now a New York Jet, said on the field after the game.

The talent of the LSU secondary, with two All-America cornerbacks, has compensated for the Tigers' undersized linebackers, Tahj Jones (6-2, 205), Kevin Minter (6-2, 242) and Ryan Baker (6-1, 236). By comparison, the Alabama linebackers average two inches taller and nearly 30 pounds heavier.

"They've got a very good defensive front," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "and they play a lot of eight-man front on run downs. We felt like in the first game we should have thrown the ball more on first down, in our assessment of ourselves. And we knew we were going to have to throw the ball on first down to take advantage of that circumstance."

By throwing on first down, McElwain kept the nation's best secondary, including All-America defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, on the perimeter, where they could do less damage. Man, did it work.

In the first quarter, McCarron threw on seven of eight first downs, completing five for 69 yards. At the half, McCarron had completed 11-of-16 on first down for 106 yards. Tight end Brad Smelley lined up in the slot behind fellow tight end Michael Williams and spent a lot of time moving wide.

"I think A.J. did a good job of managing the game and getting out of the pocket," Mathieu said. "He definitely extended a couple of plays. And we wish we could have those plays back."

Early in the season, Saban told McCarron he showed too much emotion on the field. When McCarron overcorrected, he told him to play with more emotion. By Monday night, he got it just right.

"At the end of the third quarter, I was cramping," McCarron said. "My legs were cramping all the way down. I had to calm myself down a little bit. Whenever I play with emotion, I feel like I'm hard to stop, as long as I get going early."

AJ McCarron
McCarron finished the season by fulfilling Tide coach Nick Saban's promise of a national championship.

The success of the passing game opened the running lanes for Richardson, who finished with 96 yards on 20 carries against an LSU defense that wore down in the second half. But even as the emphasis of the offense shifted to Richardson, McCarron found a way to make plays.

His scramble out of Lavar Edwards' sack attempt late in the third quarter kept Jeremy Shelley in range for his fifth field goal, a 44-yarder that gave the Tide a 15-0 lead. And on another scramble in the fourth quarter, McCarron had the presence of mind to turn up the left sideline and stay inbounds for a 13-yard gain to the LSU 35. Two plays later, Richardson made his touchdown run.

McCarron's play fulfilled the promise that prompted Saban to offer him a scholarship.

"Sitting in that office that day," McCarron said, "and Coach saying, 'I want you to lead us to a national championship one day,' and now that dream's come true -- it's just a honor."

McElwain, who is leaving Alabama to take over as head coach at Colorado State, reveled in McCarron's evolution.

"He's really grown up and matured as a leader," McElwain said. "I think he's a guy that started to understand how to watch film as a starter about midway through the season. He does a great job of understanding what we're trying to accomplish. I'll say this: His ceiling is high. I really think he'll go down in history as one of the great quarterbacks at Alabama. I really do."

When he saw McCarron after the game, right outside the Alabama locker room, McElwain took his student's face in his hands and then wrapped him in a big hug.

"Stay grounded," McElwain told him. "Keep working."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.