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This time around, said Alabama linebacker Jerrell Harris, the defensive ends and outside linebackers did a much better job playing "assignment football," pursuing proper angles and opening lanes for Dont'a Hightower and the other linebackers to make the tackles. Plus, they had excellent run support from their corners and safeties. "We were ready, man," Harris said, "and it showed."
Another stirring story line: the redemption of Tide kickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley, who failed on four field goals between them in the loss to LSU. Saban and the Alabama players closed ranks around their specialists. "So we had a little hiccup" with the field goal unit, said McCarron four days before kickoff in New Orleans. "Well, guess what, not everything's always going to be perfect. I've got the utmost faith in both our kickers. They're both great guys, and they'll get the job done."
That proved a massive understatement. Shelley's five field goals tied for the most in any bowl, ever. Foster didn't attempt a kick but was on the field when 'Bama successfully converted a fake field goal early in the second quarter.
McCarron is a polite, reserved young man who, upon stepping inside the lines, sometimes calls to mind Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In the Oct. 1 matchup at Florida, he tried to pick a fight with a Gators defensive lineman. Saban instructed his first-year starter to "calm down," preferring, not surprisingly, that he exhibit less fire, more cerebral detachment. McCarron kept his emotions in check during the first LSU showdown—"As soon as he walked on the field," recalls his mother, Dee Dee Bonner, "I could tell there was something missing"—and concluded afterward that his play had suffered for it. To be at his best, he needed to tap into his old swashbuckling, borderline cocky persona. Saban told him afterward to go ahead and be that guy, if the spirit moved him. From the moment he emerged from the tunnel at Auburn on Nov. 26, McCarron had "that pep in his step," says Dee Dee. "He was back to himself. I could tell he was going to play [well]." He picked the Tigers apart, completing 18 of 23 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
During warmups in the Superdome, Tide center William Vlachos couldn't help but notice that his quarterback was supremely, almost comically loose. "He's been to some tough places this year," said Vlachos, who started his 40th consecutive game on Monday night. "Penn State, the Swamp, Auburn for the Iron Bowl. And he's handled that, and played well.
"But this, tonight, is a completely different deal. The biggest stage, by far, he's ever been on in his life. And there he is in pregame, kinda bobbing his head to the music. He gives me a big hug, tells me it's been an honor playing with me. His mind was so right, it was kind of fun to watch him."
It's a rather dramatic step up, of course, from the Auburn Tigers to the LSU Tigers, whose burly, mustachioed defensive coordinator, John Chavis, haunts the dreams of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Taking advantage of LSU's embarrassment of riches in the secondary, Chavis this season commonly went to a 3-2-6 defense called the Mustang, featuring three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. LSU blitzed 'Bama 13 times on Nov. 5; 10 of those blitzes came when Chavis had Mustang personnel on the field.
Capitalizing on the audacious and creative game plan drawn up by offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who recently accepted the head coaching job at Colorado State, McCarron largely neutralized LSU's blitzes by throwing on first down, when the Tigers were girding themselves for runs by All-America running back Trent Richardson. When blitzers did get through, McCarron showed surprising agility.
"He did a great job making guys miss," allowed Tyrann Mathieu, LSU's storied Honey Badger, who made none of his customary big plays on Monday, although he gave up a few. "He definitely extended some plays."
Afterward, McCarron deflected credit to his line, his receivers, his coaches, the scout team and the housekeeping staff at the team hotel, for all we know. The bottom line was, he made a slew of NFL-caliber throws, in so doing etching himself permanently into the annals of an already proud program.