AJ McCarron, Alabama deliver with backs against the wall in vital SEC win over LSU

BATON ROUGE, La. – As the roars were building in Tiger Stadium and the season-altering upset edged ever closer to reality, nausea set in for Tony McCarron in the Alabama cheering section.

“Honestly,” the father of Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said, “we were about to throw up.”

But down on the field in the Crimson Tide huddle, 72 yards from the end zone and down three points with just 94 seconds left, there was no sickness. There was only calm amid the deafening chaos, as the loudest stadium in America reached peak decibel levels. This was the two-minute drill ‘Bama practices every Thursday come to life, the chance for ingrained habits to overcome insane nerves.

Center Barrett Jones recalled someone in the huddle saying, “We’ve got a chance to make history. Who’s going to be the one who makes history?”

Let the record show that the historic play was AJ to T.J. for the TD.

It may ultimately be remembered as AJ to T.J. to the north end zone to South Florida. To the BCS Championship Game and the crystal football. To a third Alabama national title in four years.

That context will unfold over the next few weeks. For now, McCarron’s 28-yard screen pass to freshman T.J. Yeldon to cap Alabama’s 21-17 comeback triumph over LSU is simply the biggest play on the biggest drive of the 2012 college football season. It was the drive that reduced McCarron to tears. The drive that saved No. 1 ‘Bama’s bacon. The drive that broke nearly 90,000 hearts in Tiger Stadium. The drive that will take its place among the greatest moments in the history of one of America’s greatest programs.

“Something I’ll never forget,” Jones said.

[Also: Kenjon Barner, Oregon roll past USC to keep ‘Bama-Oregon title dream alive]

No Alabama fan will forget the five plays it took to flash 72 yards, as a comatose offense roared to life when it absolutely had to. They won’t forget the three straight McCarron completions to Kevin Norwood to start the drive, moving the Tide from its own 28 to the LSU 28. And, after an incompletion, they definitely won’t forget the inspired screen call to Yeldon, who was a goat up to that point for a red-zone fumble that helped turn the game around.

The screen pass unfolded like a dreamscape. As McCarron dropped back, Yeldon bluffed a block on blitzing cornerback Jalen Mills – just enough to convince Mills that he was not going out for a pass. Then he drifted into the left flat and caught the ball with a whole lot of green space ahead of him.

Linebacker Kevin Minter had to detour around 320-pound guard Chance Warmack and was outrun by Yeldon. That left the 6-foot-2, 216-pound blossoming star with basically one man to beat in safety Craig Loston.

“I’ll take T.J. one-on-one against anybody,” McCarron said. “That kid’s a freak of nature, man.”

Yeldon made one sharp cut, Loston flailed and fell. Defensive end Barkevious Mingo made one vain, diving attempt at the tackle and that was it. Touchdown. Crowd in shock. “It was a surreal feeling watching him,” Jones said. “I was looking around for flags. I didn’t want to get too excited until I was sure.”

[Related: Winners and losers: While Oregon and USC struggle, K-State rolls]

There were no flags. And there was no joy for the home team, which had played the Tide off their feet and to the brink of defeat.

“This one hurt,” LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan said. “We put our heart and soul into it. We had the game in our hands and little mistakes cost us the game.”

Les Miles cost his team the game as much as anyone in purple in gold. Credit The Hat with getting his team to play with confidence and inspiration, but question him about a series of fourth-down decisions that didn’t work out.

In the second quarter, Miles called for a fake field goal on fourth-and-13, putting the ball in the hands of 183-pound kicker Drew Alleman. He was easy prey, being tackled for a two-yard loss.

On the next possession, Miles opted for a 54-yard field goal. Alleman’s career long is 44. His kick came up way short, and it gave Alabama the ball at its own 37 with 1:08 left in the first half.

The Tide ran the hurry-up to perfection then, too, driving for a touchdown with 11 seconds left to take a 14-3 lead into the halftime locker room.

So Miles was 0-for-2 on fourth-down decisions in the first half. In the second half he opted to go for a fourth-and-one at the Alabama 24, with running back Spencer Ware playing QB and sneaking the ball into a brick wall for no gain. And then Alleman missed a 45-yard field goal with 1:39 left in the game.

Add in an onside kick in the third quarter that LSU touched before it had traveled 10 yards, and it was a night of misfires for the gambling Mad Hatter.

“I wish I could have had a couple of my calls back, just so you know,” Miles said. “That is the way it goes. The good news is that we have a good football team. The good news is that we will fight again.”

[Also: Notre Dame rallies, survives to beat Pittsburgh in triple-OT]

LSU got a brilliant game from maligned quarterback Zach Mettenberger. After completing just 43 percent of his passes the previous three games, Mettenberger lit up Alabama’s No. 1 pass defense in completing 24-of-36 attempts for 298 yards. He displayed his ballyhooed arm strength, coupled with a previously unseen accuracy and touch.

Basically, Mettenberger completely switched roles with McCarron, who entered the game leading the nation in pass efficiency and then struggled badly for 58 ½ minutes. Until the final drive, McCarron was 1 for 7 in the second half for zero yards.

Then, like Tim Tebow in Denver last year, McCarron suddenly became a superstar. “Like a light switch clicked on,” Tony McCarron said.

“I just love moments like that,” A.J. said.

“He was locked in,” running back Eddie Lacy said. “He’s always locked in, but this was something different, this drive. He just took over. Everything was on his shoulders, and he came through.”

He came through so dramatically, amid such dire circumstances, that the emotion of it overwhelmed him. After the drive, the junior from Mobile was bawling on the bench.

“There was just so much emotion,” he said. “A win like that, it’s just awesome.”

A while after the win was secured, McCarron came jogging out of the visiting locker room and across the field to the ESPN "GameDay" desk in one corner of the stadium. The celebrating 'Bama fans howled ecstatically at the sight of him, still in uniform, and he acknowledged them with a pair of index fingers in the air.

While McCarron was interviewed and the ‘Bama fans celebrated, a few shell-shocked LSU fans remained in their seats. An Alabama fan held up a sign reading, “Go cry in your gumbo.” A female LSU fan screamed, “Go to hell, 'Bama! GO! TO! HELL!”

Instead, 'Bama went to the buses beneath the stadium. The last player to board was McCarron.

After a brutally physical night, he had a tender scene with his family outside the buses. McCarron hugged his parents, an uncle and a cousin, laughed and recounted a few plays, and then was told by director of football operations Joe Pannunzio that it was time to go. McCarron hugged everyone again, kissing each of them on the cheek.

Nobody in the McCarron family felt sick anymore. AJ had saved the season and made history with a drive that they’ll talk about forever in Alabama.

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