NEW ORLEANS — AJ McCarron tucked the ball into Trent Richardson's gut in an oh-so familiar move. Then he pulled it back and tossed it to tight end Brad Smelley on Alabama's first offensive play.
The second? Same thing, other side.
Richardson as a decoy? You bet.
McCarron deftly guided the Crimson Tide to a national title Monday night in a 21-0 win over LSU in which the Tigers were geared up to stop Richardson just like every other defense.
Only this ferocious, speedy defense was maybe good enough to pull it off.
"We've been leaning on No. 3 (Richardson) all year," McCarron, the offensive MVP, said. "He's our workhorse. I mean, he's our main guy.
"And we knew coming into the game somebody else had to step up, and coach just gave me an opportunity."
McCarron delivered, even after No. 1 receiver Marquis Maze's early exit with a left hamstring injury.
The third-year sophomore sprinkled the ball around, avoided big mistakes and played with poise even as LSU senior Jordan Jefferson struggled.
McCarron, who needed a couple of games to secure the starting job, completed 20 of 34 passes for 234 yards. He even scrambled 13 yards for a first down in the fourth quarter to help set up Richardson's 34-yard touchdown run that finally proved LSU coach Les Miles hadn't erected some invisible goal line barricade.
"We knew that he was going to have to play well, because we knew that we were going to throw the ball," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "He showed great leadership and poise in making good decisions."
Richardson pounded away at a defense that refused to give up an inch without a fight. He did carry 20 times for 96 yards, with two catches for 11 yards. It's a far cry from the 169 total yards in the November meeting.
McCarron normally takes secondary status to the Heisman Trophy finalist. This time, the roles were largely flipped.
When Alabama played Texas in the national championship game two years ago, Richardson and Heisman winner Mark Ingram both topped 100 rushing yards. McCarron's predecessor, Greg McElroy, needed only pass for 58 yards.
Placekicker Jeremy Shelley helped pick up the slack when LSU's rubber-band defense snapped back at the end of numerous promising drives. Shelley's five field goals tied a bowl record to provide redemption for both he and long-range kicker Cade Foster after their 2-for-6 performance in LSU-Alabama I.
McCarron did just enough to get him the shots.
Fiery and with a touch of swagger, he also proved he was all grown up.
That kid that challenged a Florida defensive lineman after a late hit early this season? Gone.
Coach Nick Saban knocked that from his system with a spicy sideline tirade.
"I'm sure pretty much most of the country saw coach rip me for showing too much emotion," McCarron said.
Here, Saban offers a much more gentle correction. "I just didn't want to have to pull that big guy you're ready to get into it with off of you," the coach cracked.
Saban told him then to check his emotions at the gate. He changed his mind and said let them loose after the first meeting, when he passed for 199 yards and was intercepted once.
McCarron did the proper thing, thanking everyone from Saban to his offensive line to the mostly ignored scout-team defenders whose sole job was preparing the guys who play for the game.
McCarron didn't take many shots downfield; that's risky business against All-America cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. He did connect with seven receivers.
He and Smelley connected seven times for mostly small chunks, other than the 15-yarder to open things up. Darius Hanks, a strong downfield blocker, finished his Tide career with five receptions and 58 yards. Kevin Norwood nearly matched his 90 receiving yards for the season, getting 78.
McCarron was just managing the show.Comment on this story
"I don't think I did anything special, really," he said. "I mean, I always bust my butt in the film room. I mean, it helps when you got a little longer, you can study them a lot more.
"But I bust my butt in there, and I know everything they want to do. Certain downs and distances. But that goes back to our coaching staff. We have the best coaching staff in the country."
He said offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who's taking over the Colorado State program, gave him sound advice on a New Orleans bus ride.
" 'You don't have to win the game,' " he said McElwain told him, " 'just go play your game.' "
"And I felt like I did that tonight," McCarron said.