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Saturday, November 3, 2012
Updated: November 4, 9:58 AM ET
AJ McCarron leads Alabama

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Before Alabama center Barrett Jones trotted onto the field for the No. 1 Crimson Tide's season-defining drive at No. 5 LSU on Saturday night, he offered offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland one final suggestion.

"Hey, don't forget about the screen," Jones told Stoutland.

With about 1½ minutes to play, LSU had a 17-14 lead and was threatening to knock off defending BCS national champion Alabama, which probably would have ended the SEC's hopes of winning a seventh consecutive national title.

Along with most of a record crowd of 93,374 fans at Tiger Stadium, college football fans from Eugene, Ore., to Manhattan, Kan., to South Bend, Ind. (and everywhere else outside the Southeast) were probably roaring for the Tigers to make one more defensive stop.

AJ McCarron
AJ McCarron's screen pass to T.J. Yeldon sealed the deal for the Crimson Tide.

After LSU's Drew Alleman missed a 45-yard field goal with 1:34 to play, the Crimson Tide took possession at their 28-yard line. They probably needed to drive more than 40 yards for a tying field goal attempt or, even better, 72 yards for a winning touchdown.

And they didn't have much time -- or any timeouts -- to do it.

"I just looked at everybody on the sideline," Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said. "We got down for a minute, but we pulled it together. I told them, 'We do it every Thursday in practice. It doesn't matter how many people are in the stands. The field is still 100 yards long, and we have to go put it in the end zone.'"

That's exactly what the Crimson Tide did in one of the most memorable comebacks in Alabama's storied football history. After McCarron completed three consecutive passes to Kevin Norwood to move the Tide inside LSU's 30-yard line, Stoutland and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier dialed up the play Jones suggested before running onto the field.

On second-and-10 from the LSU 28, McCarron threw a screen pass to tailback T.J. Yeldon, who dodged a blitzing safety and sprinted into the end zone with 51 seconds to play for an improbable 21-17 victory.

"That last drive was something I'll never forget," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They blitzed. When we called it, everybody was saying on the headset, 'I hope they pressure.' Somebody's either got to peel the guy or take him from inside out; everybody else is playing man-to-man. They blitzed."

And Alabama won, keeping alive its dream of becoming the first team to win back-to-back consensus national championships since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.

"It was a surreal feeling watching [Yeldon]," Jones said. "I was looking around for a flag. I didn't want to go crazy before I knew it was for real."

Alabama fans are probably still pinching themselves, after watching their team nearly lose for the first time this season. Instead, the Crimson Tide will remain No. 1 in the BCS standings and on track to play for their third BCS national championship in four seasons in Miami on Jan. 7.

Jones said the normally stoic Saban was even beside himself after the victory, giving players big bear hugs in the locker room afterward.

"I've never seen him so happy," Jones said. "He gave me a big hug. I think it was special for him. It was cool."

The Crimson Tide can clinch an SEC West title by defeating No. 16 Texas A&M at home next week. They close the regular season with home games against FCS foe Western Carolina on Nov. 17 and rival Auburn in the Nov. 24 Iron Bowl. Alabama would play the SEC East champion -- No. 6 Georgia, if the Bulldogs win at Auburn next week -- in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Three weeks ago, after LSU upset No. 3 South Carolina 23-21 at Tiger Stadium, LSU coach Les Miles suggested the intimidating venue was a place where "opponents' dreams come to die." The Tigers had won 36 of their previous 37 Saturday night games under Miles, and the Crimson Tide nearly became his latest victim.

"I told our guys we're going to have to keep fighting in this game and keep competing until we knock them out," Saban said.

Alabama had to pick itself up off the mat more than a few times on Saturday night. The winning touchdown was redemption for Yeldon, a freshman from Daphne, Ala., who fumbled at LSU's 13-yard line late in the third quarter. At the time, Alabama had a 14-10 lead and seemed to be on the verge of extending it.

"I might be wrong, but it was going to be a touchdown," Jones said. "We just gashed the play."

Instead, LSU's Sam Montgomery recovered the fumble, and the Tigers took over and drove 90 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw a 14-yard touchdown to Jarvis Landry to give the Tigers a 17-14 lead with 12:58 to go.

"I just told [Yeldon] to stay positive," Alabama running back Eddie Lacy said. "It's football, and fumbles and mistakes happen. You can't dwell on it. Coach Saban always tells us to prepare for the next play."

But after Alabama went three-and-out on each of its next two possessions, it seemed the Mad Hatter was going to pull another miracle out of his hat. After relying on his defense and running game for much of the past two seasons, Miles returned to his high-risk roots against Alabama, faking a field goal in the first half and then attempting an onside kick and fourth-and-1 run at the Alabama 24 in the second. Unfortunately for LSU, each of those plays failed to work.

If those gambles had worked, Alabama might have been digging out of an even bigger hole. In their first eight games, the Crimson Tide trailed only once -- for all of 15 seconds in a 33-14 victory over Ole Miss on Sept. 29.

AJ McCarron
McCarron was under pressure from LSU defenders -- all the way to Alabama's final drive.

But after blowing a 14-3 halftime lead against LSU, Alabama faced real adversity for the first time this season.

"We told our players, and it's kind of ironic, that they would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here," Saban said. "And when things went bad and the momentum of the game changed, that's what we kept talking to them about. They kept their poise, and they kept playing and they kept competing. I've never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity."

McCarron, who came into the game leading the country in pass efficiency, also faced adversity for the first time this season. He scored on a 9-yard run near the end of the first half, but then threw incompletions on his first six passes after halftime.

McCarron, who was being mentioned as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, was outplayed by the much-maligned Mettenberger, who threw for a career-high 298 yards with one touchdown on 24-for-35 passing.

"Everything is not always going to go your way, regardless of how much you want it or how much you practice for it," McCarron said. "This is a very good LSU team, and they brought their A-game tonight."

Fortunately for Alabama, McCarron saved his best for when it mattered most.

"He was locked in," Lacy said. "He's always locked in every game, but there was something different about this drive. He knew he had to get the plays in and execute them. He took over. He knew exactly what he had to do. It was clockwork."

And the Crimson Tide's championship dreams still have a pulse because of it.

"You could see it in everybody's eyes," McCarron said. "We were like, 'We do it every Thursday. Why can't we do it here?'"