Solid quarterback play fuels epic thriller

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGAlabama quarterback AJ McCarron throws, in the first half Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGAlabama quarterback AJ McCarron throws, in the first half Saturday in Tiger Stadium.

With one minute to go before the start of the second half, AJ McCarron stood near the goal post on the south end zone of Tiger Stadium, coolly playing a little pitch-and-catch with teammate Kenny Bell.

Saturday night, halfway through the biggest game in college football this season, Alabama’s junior quarterback had an easygoing look to him. He had led his team to a seemingly commanding first-half lead against LSU.

McCarron couldn’t have known what was coming next.

Before the Crimson Tide rallied for its thrilling 21-17 victory, stunning a record-setting crowd that came to life in the second half, McCarron had no way of knowing his oft-criticized counterpart, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, was about to nearly upstage him.

Mettenberger, of course, hadn’t done much to ease the minds of LSU’s fans this season.

Sure, receivers had betrayed him at times with dropped passes, and Mettenberger had made several tough, on-the-money throws in his first eight games as a starting quarterback.

But he was also coming off a season-low 97 yard effort at Texas A&M.

Against Alabama, the junior quarterback fared better in the first half.

Though he took two sacks and had two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, Mettenberger completed 10 of his first 18 throws for 91 yards — including a 38-yard pass to tailback Spencer Ware on third down from the Tigers’ 9, a play that seemed to boost the quarterback’s confidence (the drive later stalled).

Three of Mettenberger’s first-half incompletions were dropped by LSU’s receivers.

Mettenberger mostly sparkled, finishing 24 of 35 for 298 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions — far more than what most LSU fans probably expected.

McCarron’s stat line — 14 of 27 for 165 yards — wasn’t as hefty. But he coolly led the Tide to that game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds remaining.

One other thing: McCarron still has not thrown an interception this season.

Of course, in this clash of Southeastern Conference titans, the quarterbacks were only one of many key matchups.

A look at several others:

LSU’s offensive line

The Tigers played their third straight game with the same combination — and early on, the offensive line was rock-steady, propelling LSU to 112 yards in the first quarter.

Though they gave up three sacks, the offensive line usually gave Mettenberger enough time to throw.

They also opened straight-ahead holes for freshman tailback Jeremy Hill, who finished with 107 yards — easily a season-high for an Alabama opponent.

Before Saturday’s game, Arkansas’ Knile Davis had been the most successful rusher against the Nick Saban’s defense. Davis had 59 yards.

Bama’s offensive strategy

Simply put, it didn’t always work.

The Crimson Tide was 1-for-4 on third down in the first half, and for the game, Alabama held the ball for only 20 minutes, 45 seconds.

What’s more, the Tide might have been able to put the game away in the third quarter, driving deep inside LSU territory after the Tigers’ failed onside kick. But T.J. Yeldon dropped a handoff, allowing LSU to escape and eventually take the lead.

But when McCarron and his teammates were on, they were really on.

Scoring two touchdowns in the second quarter, the Tide took advantage of LSU’s aggressive defense with screens, rollouts and misdirection. The result: 155 yards on 17 plays.

Yeldon, of course, redeemed himself with his game-winning 28-yard reception, which capped Alabama’s wild 43-second, 72-yard sprint to the end zone.

The Tide finished with 331 yards from scrimmage — fewer than LSU’s 435, but enough to leave Baton Rouge with a win.

Special teams take chances

The two punters — LSU’s Brad Wing and Alabama’s Cody Mandell — essentially played to a draw (they each pinned two kicks inside the 20), the Tigers rolled the dice several times on special teams.

First, there was the fake field goal — a minus-2-yard pass on fourth-and-12 to place-kicker Drew Alleman, a play Les Miles himself said he’d like to have back.

Then, after the Tigers scored their first touchdown, Miles tried an onside kick.

It nearly worked. But James Hairston touched the ball illegally, 1 yard before he needed to.

“We had the opportunity to really take the momentum in the game,” Miles said.

Then, of course, there were the missed field goals.

Alleman was short from 54 yards in the first half, then wide from 45 yards with 1:34 remaining.