KNOXVILLE, Tenn.--Bruised knee? A.J. McCarron, who had been limping all week in practice after injuring his knee against Missouri, played practically perfect football Saturday night as he led Alabama to a 44-13 win over archrival Tennessee on the road.
The No. 1 Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) has now beaten the Vols (3-4, 0-4) six years in a row.
McCarron clearly likes playing against UT. In 2010, he threw his first career-touchdown pass to Julio Jones in Neyland Stadium, last year he threw for a career-high 284 yards and Saturday night he breached the 300-yard passing mark for the first time ever, going an almost flawless 17-of-22 for 306 yards and four touchdowns.
His stat line this season now reads 107-of-154 for 1,476 yards and 16 touchdowns without a single interception. In fact he hasn’t thrown a pick in his last 249 pass attempts, and after last night's game McCarron leads the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 183.63.
“He’s just doing his job,” said tight end Michael Williams. “He stepped out of the role that people would call him as a game manager. He's learned to take over, learned to lead us and it’s just all about hitting the right spots during the game.
“You can get discombobulated, you can get frustrated or whatever, but once you stay on the same path, you saw what happened tonight, you can throw for 300 yards, no problem.”
When asked about his impressive performance, McCarron selflessly gave the credit to his teammates.
“I can’t say enough about my offensive line or receivers,” he said. “Those guys had a hell of a game.”
Later, he sang the praises of his great protectors a little bit more.
“Nobody loves my offensive line like me,” he said. “Those big boys are definitely going to have a meal coming.”
McCarron was in the best post-game mood he’s been in all season. Despite other lopsided wins in previous weeks, McCarron has either not been available to the media afterwards, or come in completely emotionless and monotone.
But Saturday was different. He was smiling, happy and even tweeted a picture of himself and another teammate smoking a victory cigar in the locker room after the game.
“We set the tone and we stayed on it,” he said.
Alabama’s greatest offensive highlights Saturday were started by major defensive stops. Turning takeaways into touchdowns has been a theme for the Tide this season, scoring 111 points off 20 turnovers.
With Alabama up 13-3 in the second quarter, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was intercepted by linebacker C.J. Mosley. On the ensuing drive, McCarron completed a 45-yard pass to true freshman stud Amari Cooper to put the Tide in scoring position. Two plays later McCarron found Williams for a 1-yard touchdown catch in the end zone.
Midway through the third quarter, the Tide had a too-close-for-comfort 23-10 lead as the Vols began marching down field. Tennessee faced fourth-and-1 from the Alabama-33 but linebackers Nico Johnson and Ed Stinson made a critical stop for no gain. On Alabama’s next series, McCarron found Cooper for a 42-yard touchdown.
Later, as UT tried to make another run, safety Robert Lester ended all hope by intercepting Bray in the end zone and McCarron found receiver Kenny Bell for a 39-yard score on the next drive.
The Tide was balanced throughout the night, rushing for 233 yards and passing for 249.
“Tonight we got them on their heels a little bit and we were able to do both,” McCarron said.
Despite how powerful Alabama is and how this team’s versatility allows them to win games in myriad ways, the players still feel they can’t nail down an identity yet.
“We won’t identify ourselves until the end of the season,” Lester said. “Every game is a challenge for us and we’re meeting it.”
Indeed they are.
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