Alabama needed this win, badly. Alabama needed a leader to step in and take charge. Tennessee came into Bryant-Denny intending to thwart the goals of the 2011 Crimson Tide. With their own pitiful season written off as another re-building year, the upset minded Volunteers played a nearly perfect first half and went into the intermission tied with the No. 2 team in the nation, 6-6.
And then something amazing happened. Something Nick Saban and the entire Alabama football team had hoped could happen. Something many fans believed was possible but until Saturday night did not have the proof that it would happen.
AJ McCarron took charge of the offense and won a game by becoming a playmaker. AJ McCarron led the Crimson Tide to victory with his arm, his legs, his heart and soul. AJ McCarron became the leader of the Crimson Tide.
He was no longer just the quarterback of the offense, he became the team leader, the one that all other playmakers can look to for leadership on the gridiron, in the heat of a battle. A leader that takes control of a game and has an impact on the outcome. A definitive impact. A game changing performance.
A leader that the offense can depend on, not just for calling the right play, but to put the ball where it needs to be in timely fashion so his receivers can score. The man making the call at the line to open an A or B gap and get the running back into the second level of the defense untouched so that he can make a move and get downfield.
A leader that the defense can count on to make the best of an opportunity when they have played their hearts out, made a stop on fourth down and expect the offense to deliver a knock out blow. AJ McCarron is now that man for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The game on Saturday night against the Tennessee Volunteers was and will remain a defining moment in the career of AJ McCarron.
On just the fifth offensive play of the evening, the second Alabama pass play of the night, AJ McCarron was picked by Tennessee linebacker, Austin Johnson at the UT 40-yard line. Johnson returned the interception to the UA 41-yard line and was tackled by Trent Richardson. The impact of the interception was lessened by the Alabama defense, holding the Vols to just 11-yards on five plays. But it was an abysmal start for Alabama.
And then that series was followed by a three and out by the lackluster Crimson Tide offense. Tennessee then marched down the field, led by backup quarterback Matt Simms and Tauren Poole, moving 45-yards on 12 plays, ending the drive with a 40-yard field goal. Time of possession for the drive was better than 6:30, silencing the Alabama crowd that had come to see their team dominate the border state rival.
For Alabama fans, the first half of offensive play was completely boring and deflating. Spirited play by the defense kept the crowd from completely disengaging from the contest. Time and time again, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower would encourage the crowd to stay involved, ultimately causing the Volunteer offense to miscue and force timeouts when crowd noise was at a fever pitch.
But at the half, the disappointment was so overwhelming that very few fans could muster enough applause to adequately congratulate the National Champion gymnasts who were presented to the crowd during the halftime festivities. To add insult, the UT Marching Band took over the show and belted the familiar tones of Rocky Top and the fans clad in orange made sure their presence was known to the crowd inside Bryant-Denny.
Nick Saban needed an answer to his call for leadership. He chewed a little carcass at the half but he also pleaded for his leaders to take charge. AJ McCarron gave him what he needed, and gave it to him very quickly as the second half of play began.
UT began the second-half on offense, and could do nothing against the steady Alabama defense. A three and out after only gaining 6-yards on UT's first possession forced a punt by M. Palardy of 46-yards. Marquis Maze fair caught the ball on the Alabama 24-yard line on the change of possession.
AJ McCarron stepped into his role as the Alabama quarterback, leading the Tide on a 75-yard drive, which included four straight first down passes. Completions to Richardson for 22-yards, Hanks for 14-yards, Marquis Maze for 20-yards and Brad Smelley for 17-yards showed that McCarron had complete control of the offense and had no particular receiver in mind when the ball was snapped. He was all about making the right play, he was in the zone.
His success on the drive forced Tennessee to call a timeout with the ball on the UT 2-yard line, first and goal. And just when they thought they had him figured out, AJ rushed to the right side (covering about 25-yards) to go in for the two yard score, diving for the pylon at the right corner of the end zone. the 75-yard drive took only 1:51 to complete. Alabama led 13-6, after the made extra point and never looked back.
Head coach Derek Dooley, trying to spark momentum for the Volunteer offense, and made a poor choice to go for it on 4th-and-1, with the ball resting on the UT 39-yard line. The quarterback sneak by Matt Simms fell short, landing the Alabama offense in great field position. The intensity of the Alabama defense coming off the field ignited McCarron to excel even more.
McCarron showed everyone in the stadium that he could deliver a death blow on the very next play. A 39-yard strike to Kenny Bell hit the mark and put the Crimson Tide up 20-6. The play took only :09 seconds. The entire Tennessee bench slumped in unison with the completed touchdown catch. There was no way they could mount an offensive against this Alabama defense, they knew it, but it was the Alabama offense that delivered the knockout punch.
While one game does not make a season, it can be a defining moment for a season and for an individual's career. The defining moment for the season will be played out in two weeks, on November 5th, at Bryant-Denny against the LSU Tigers.
The defining moment for AJ McCarron played out on Saturday night, October 22nd. And what a night it was, for sure. He took center stage and showed Alabama fans that they have a champion leading their team. And AJ McCarron is the man who will lead this team in two weeks in the most highly anticipated contest of the 2011 college football season.
Nothing will be handed out on a silver platter, but we have a leader who knows how to take what rightfully belongs to his team. It's time to see who is "The Best in the West."