BATON ROUGE, La. — At Alabama, it will go down as a crimson version of “The Drive.”
For AJ McCarron, it confirmed what the Tide already knew – this guy is a heck of a quarterback.
He saved the season on a Saturday night in Death Valley, and most likely propelled himself into the thick of the Heisman Trophy race.
“Just so many emotions running through me,” a tearful McCarron said. “Sometimes it can be a lot of pressure playing here at this university, especially with all the tradition of winning and everything.”
Alabama (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) remained perfect on the season and No. 1 in the rankings with a stirring 21-17 victory over LSU.
The Crimson Tide finally got a challenge after rolling through its first eight opponents.
Thanks to McCarron, Alabama passed with flying colors.
Down by a field goal and 72 yards from the end zone, with just 94 seconds remaining and no timeouts, the junior engineered a drive for the ages. Three consecutive completions to get into scoring position. Then a perfectly called screen pass to T.J. Yeldon when the Tigers blitzed. The result was a 28-yard touchdown that won it for the Tide.
McCarron needed all of 49 seconds to shred one of college football’s toughest defenses, a unit that had shut him down for almost the entire second half.
With the Heisman race a bit of a jumble, especially after Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein was injured Saturday, McCarron is moving up the charts. He is the nation’s third-rated passer, behind Klein and Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, with 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
His father, Tony McCarron, called that final possession the sort of signature moment that defines every Heisman winner.
“You know how they always say you have to have one?” the elder McCarron said. “There it is.”
He also scoffed at those who have described his son as more of a game manager than a star, a player whose main role is to make sure he doesn’t do anything that gets the nation’s most talented team beat.
“He wasn’t much of a game manager there, was he?” Tony McCarron said.
No reply required.
AJ struggled through much of the second half, having completed just 1 of 7 passes for 0 yards when he got the ball back for Alabama’s final possession. But his confidence never wavered.
“I just love moments like that,” he said “I like having the ball in pressure situations. When you’ve got teammates like I have, it makes your job easy.”
McCarron went to Kevin Norwood for an 18-yard gain that stopped the clocked while the officials reset the chains. Then, two more completions to Norwood for 15 and 11 yards, both along the sidelines so he could get out of bounds. McCarron went looking for Norwood one more time, throwing it up in the end zone. But the receiver and defensive back got tangled up, sending them both to the Tiger Stadium turf. The ball fell harmlessly to the ground.
Deciding it couldn’t sit back any longer, LSU called a corner blitz. McCarron saw it all the way, swinging a pass to Yeldon slipping out of the backfield. He slipped away from one would-be tackler, faked out another and raced to the end zone with 51 seconds remaining.
A perfect call. A perfect result.
“It was like clockwork,” McCarron said. “The whole offense just looked at each other and you could just tell in everybody’s eyes it was like, ‘We do this every Thursday, so what’s the difference here?’”
LSU, which had done such a good job against McCarron in the second half, was helpless against him with the game on the line.
“They were efficient throwing the football,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “AJ McCarron played pretty well in that game.”
Slipping from fifth to ninth in The Associated Press rankings and likely eliminated from the national race, LSU (7-2, 3-2) seemed more disconsolate after this one than it was back in January, when Alabama romped to a 21-0 blowout in the BCS title game.
“This one hurts,” Logan said. “This one hurts more than the national championship game because we had this one. It was the little mistakes we made as a defensive unit that cost us this game and cost us the chance to reach a lot of our goals this season.”
For Alabama and McCarron, all the goals are still in play.
The Crimson Tide has essentially locked up the SEC West, pulling two games clear of the field with two conference games remaining. There’s still some tough contests remaining, including next Saturday at home against No. 15 Texas A&M, plus a likely meeting with No. 5 Georgia in the league championship game. But if Alabama runs the table, it will definitely be headed to Miami with a shot at its second straight national title and third in four years.
McCarron might have to make a side trip to New York City on his way to South Beach.
This could have been his Heisman moment.
“He wasn’t in rhythm the whole second half, and one last drive he doesn’t miss,” his father marveled. “I don’t even know where that comes from. He’s been that way his whole life. The light switch clicks on.”