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This time, sophomore quarterback McCarron gets Tide rolling

by | CBSSports.com Senior Colllege Football Blogger
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NEW ORLEANS -- Coming into tonight's BCS Championship Game, there had been four quarterbacks who started BCS title games as sophomores or freshmen: Marcus Outzen in 1998, Michael Vick for Virginia Tech in 2000, Sam Bradford in 2009 and Darron Thomas in 2011. They all lost.

Enter Alabama sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron, who guided the Crimson Tide to a 21-0 victory over LSU for the national championship. McCarron was Alabama's weapon of choice in the game, going 23 of 34 for 234 yards and making several big plays under pressure to keep many of Alabama's six scoring drives alive.

Head coach Nick Saban praised McCarron's approach to the game as what has set him apart from all the other young quarterbacks who have tried and faltered in their quests for the BCS Championship.

"Even though this is [McCarron's] first year starting, I think he's taken advantage of maturing as a player," Saban said at the post-game press conference. "He does prepare well, he has really good football instincts about what he's doing, he's a talented guy, and he's learned, I think, how to take what the defense gives and play with patience and not try to force plays. And he's played well for us all year long."

Saban's words sound almost boilerplate from a coach if he's talking about his fifth-year senior signal caller. That Saban -- who, let's remember, is not exactly one for empty praise -- was describing a redshirt sophomore in his first year as a starter instead is beyond remarkable.

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Coming into the game, it seemed likely that Alabama would lean heavily on its running game. Trent Richardson was the Heisman runner-up and the nation's best running back, and second-stringer Eddie Lacy has been effective as a backup with his 7.5 yards per carry average. Lacy's not a change of pace by any stretch -- both guys run hard and direct -- but he certainly looks like a future workhorse in the Alabama offense, and Alabama doesn't really need to stray from a pace like that anyway.

So, naturally, McCarron threw the ball 25 times in the first half alone (compared to 16 team rushes), tallying 156 yards in the first two quarters and leading three field goal drives. The last drive of the half was a masterstroke, as the Crimson Tide went nine plays and 52 yards in 1:59, finishing with a 41-yard field goal. McCarron was 6 of 6 for 45 yards on the drive, and 41 of those yards came with under 40 seconds left in the half.

McCarron relished the opportunity to take on more of a burden.

"I was very thankful, first of all, about [throwing more often]," Lee said. "We've been leaning on No. 3 [Trent Richardson] all year. He's our workhorse. I mean, he's our main guy. We knew coming into the game somebody else had to step up, and [Saban] just gave me an opportunity."

"I told him when we were riding on the bus the other day, 'You know, that first LSU game was not one of your best games, but you really don't have to win this game; you just gotta play your game,'" Saban said. "And I thought he did a fantastic job of that tonight."

McCarron's modus operandi on offense was to use misdirection to get tight end Brad Smelley free, and that helped open up the downfield passing attack later in the game. McCarron executed the rollouts to near perfection, getting sacked only twice (and on one sack, he eluded a tackler deep in the pocket and scrambled back for a two-yard loss). Smelley led the team with seven receptions, and though those catches only totaled 39 yards, they came early and often enough that LSU's familiar tenacity on defense was slowed by the new development; by comparison, Smelley had just one catch for eight yards in the teams' first meeting.

"I don't think I did anything special, really," McCarron said. "I mean, I always bust my butt in the film room. It helps when you got a little longer, you can study them a lot more, but I bust my butt in there, and I know everything [LSU's defense] wants to do. Certain downs and distances. But that goes back to our coaching staff. We have the best coaching staff in the country. And like I said, I'm just glad Coach gave me the opportunity."

Even the vaunted LSU defense -- likely the best secondary in the country outside of Tuscaloosa -- was forced to admit that McCarron's steady, heady play had bested them.

"I think AJ did a good job of managing the game and getting out of the pocket," said LSU's celebrated cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. "It was pressure on him. He definitely extended a couple of plays, and we wish we could have had those plays back. But I think we did a good job on defense, but they played a good game today."

And yet, if there's one constant to McCarron's mindset, especially in victory, it's that he's cognizant of the disproportionate amount of attention quarterbacks receive. To him, the title reflects the work that not only he, but everyone around him puts in to succeed, and he was sure to make that clear on Monday.

"I think a bunch of our success goes to the guys that don't really get it, that people don't see, is the defensive scouts," McCarron said. "I mean, those guys gave us a perfect look all week long of the past 44 days or however long we've been practicing for LSU. Those guys have been perfect on that side of the ball during practice. Those are the guys that don't ever get noticed in the newspapers. And they earned this just as much as everybody else that played the game tonight."

McCarron is, of course, correct. Preparation for a title involves everyone on the team, from the players to the coaches to the training staff, and it's no surprise that a Nick Saban-led program achieved those goals better than anybody else in the nation this year. Indeed, if one were to try to imagine a program where a quarterback like McCarron would be able to be on the field for such great team goals so early in his collegiate career, Alabama would be on a very short list.

And yet, when it was time to play, it was McCarron with the ball in his hands, running the offense. That's an awful lot of trust to put on a redshirt sophomore in a BCS championship, knowing the title game's history. But history's just that: history. This game and this championship were McCarron's to take, and with the help of an extremely talented and disciplined team around him, he did exactly that.

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