QB position no longer a question mark for the Crimson Tide
By Mitch Light
It was far from the most stressful environment, and his team was favored by more than four touchdowns. But AJ McCarron made a nice statement Saturday night in Tuscaloosa as the Crimson Tide cruised past Vanderbilt, 34–0. Alabama’s sophomore quarterback played the best game of his short career against a Vanderbilt team that entered the game ranked 11th in the nation in total defense and fourth in the nation in passing efficiency defense.
McCarron had season-highs in completions (23), attempts (30), passing yards (237) and touchdowns (four). And most important, he did not throw an interception against a Commodore defense that had picked off 14 passes in its first four games. McCarron, who threw two picks in the first game of the season against Kent State, has now gone
21 quarters without throwing an interception.
“AJ played pretty well,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, never one to offer effusive praise for his players. “He didn’t turn the ball over which was really important.”
The quarterback position was one of the few question marks for this Alabama team. McCarron beat out Phillip Sims in the preseason for the starting assignment and is trying to prove that he has what it takes — both physically and mentally — to run Alabama’s pro-style offense. He is 6–0 as a starter, with wins at Penn State and at Florida on his resume.
Alabama has already shown that it can run the ball with success. The Crimson Tide will need to prove that it can pass the ball — and do so in big spots — to be a championship team. Saturday night, McCarron and his offense took a step in the right direction.
“I definitely think we are an offense that can run and pass at will when we are clicking on all cylinders,” said tight end Brad Smelley. “I think we showed tonight that if you try to load the box, we can definitely make plays over the top and find the zones and the spaces that are open in there. We are a two phase team so we can run and pass.”
Alabama was particularly effective on third down against Vanderbilt, converting a season-high 70.6 percent (12-of-17). For the season, McCarron has completed 29-of-46 passes (63.0 percent) on third down with 23 of those 29 completions resulting in a first down.
If that type of production in the passing game continues, no one will question McCarron’s ability to be a championship quarterback.
AROUND THE SEC
• Tennessee’s Tyler Bray had thrown at least two touchdown passes in 10 straight games before being shut out by Georgia on Saturday night. Bray will be out of action for 4-6 weeks with a broken thumb.
• In two SEC games, Tennessee’s tailbacks have rushed for only 49 yards on 30 carries.
• In a 38–14 loss to Arkansas, Auburn was held scoreless for three straight quarters in the same game for the first time in the Gus Malzahn era.
• Vanderbilt’s average of 4.4 yards per play against Alabama was the highest of any Crimson Tide opponent this season. The Commodores, however, only had 43 offensive snaps, resulting in 190 total yards.
• Kentucky attempted a total of 26 passes for 17 yards in its 54–3 loss at South Carolina. The Cats averaged 0.65 yards per attempt.
• Arkansas has 109 plays of 10 yards or more this season. Kentucky and Vanderbilt each have only 44 such plays from scrimmage.
• Florida has been outgained 819 to 425 over the last two weeks.
• LSU has only allowed four sacks in six games. The Tigers are the only team in the league that is giving up less than one per game.
• South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore broke a two-game stretch of sub-100-yard games. He gained 102 yards on 22 carries against Kentucky, though he was held without a touchdown for the first time this season.
The Auburn Tigers averaged 41.3 points in their first 25 victories of the Gus Malzahn era. But in the 26th win — arguably one of the most unlikely — the Tigers scored only 16 points and managed only 358 yards despite running a season-high — by 29 snaps — 92 offensive plays. Still, despite those offensive struggles, Auburn found a way to get it done, edging South Carolina 16–13 in Columbia for a precious SEC road win.
The Tigers, shockingly, won this game on defense. A unit that entered the weekend ranked 110th in the nation in total defense, 112th in rushing defense and 90th in scoring defense, somehow, some way found a way to slow down a South Carolina offense that features elite offensive talent in the form of tailback Marcus Lattimore and wideout Alshon Jeffery. The same Auburn defense that gave up 38 points and 448 total yards to a Utah State team that featured a true freshman quarterback limited South Carolina to a season-low 289 yards. The same Auburn defense that gave up 34 points to Mississippi State (which, by the way, has averaged 14 points since playing the Tigers) and 38 points to Clemson held South Carolina to its lowest total since a 20–7 loss to UConn in the 2009 Papajohns.com bowl.
Auburn’s plan of attack on the defensive end was to slow down Lattimore, who entered the weekend averaging 152.8 yards per game. That, however, is easier said than done — especially for a defense that was giving up 226.5 yards per game on the ground.
“I knew for all intents and purposes we had to stop 21 (Marcus Lattimore) running it, or it would be hard to win,” head coach Gene Chizik said after the game.
Mission — somehow — accomplished.
Lattimore was held to season lows of 17 carries and 66 yards. As a whole, the South Carolina offense struggled to sustain drives all game long. The Gamecocks only had one drive that went for more than 50 yards and only one drive that lasted more than five plays.
Clearly, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier envisioned his team having more success.
“(Auburn) hadn’t been playing very well defensively,” Spurrier said. “We made them look like about the best defense in the league most of the night. I think we had two long balls and that was about it. We got nothing consistently.”
South Carolina will have an opportunity to get back in the win column next week when struggling Kentucky visits Columbia, while Auburn braces for a three-game gauntlet that features trips to Arkansas and LSU sandwiched around a home game vs. Florida.
Can Chizik and the Tigers keep the magic going?
AROUND THE SEC
• Vic Ballard only had eight carries in Mississippi State’s 24–10 loss at Georgia, his fewest against an FBS opponent since his Week 2 last season vs. Auburn.
• LSU only gave up 155 yards of offense to Kentucky, and almost half of those (70) came on a fourth quarter drive with the Tigers holding a 35–0 lead.
• Consider this: Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense (8.4 ppg) and has already played Florida, Arkansas and Penn State.
• Kentucky (139.4 ypg) and Vanderbilt (124.3 ypg) combined are averaging 263.2 passing yards per game — a total that would rank third in the SEC behind Arkansas and Tennessee.
• Stephen Garcia has now thrown 50 interceptions in his South Carolina career.
• Tennessee continues to lead the SEC in third down conversions at 62.1 percent. Next on the list is LSU at 46.5 percent. The Vols were 10th in the league last year at 36.5 percent.
• Ole Miss should get Fresno State on the schedule every year. Over the last two years, the Rebs are 5–10 vs. FBS opponents, with two of the wins coming against Fresno State. Last year, Ole Miss scored a season-high 55 points vs. the Bulldogs (averaged 26.4 vs. all other FBS team). Last Saturday, Ole Miss broke out with 38 points vs. FSU after averaging 11.0 points in three previous games vs. FBS competition.