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December 23, 2012

Bama's underrated passing game

When Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and the Alabama offense rushed for 350 yards against Georgia in the SEC championship game, it set up the ultimate strength vs. strength match-up in the national title tilt against Notre Dame.

It will be big on big when Alabama’s road-grating offensive line - led by center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker - collide with Notre Dame’s defensive front, which boasts an immovable object in nose guard Louis Nix and a host of able-bodied complements such as Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Often lost in the praise that is heaped upon Nick Saban and his championship-churning program is the passing game led by junior quarterback A.J. McCarron, who was at the helm of the Alabama offense when they claimed the 2011 national title.

McCarron comes into the national championship game with the No. 1 pass efficiency rating in the country. His 173.08 mark is just a tick ahead of his SEC championship counterpart - Georgia’s Aaron Murray.

McCarron has completed 191-of-286 passes (66.7 percent) for 2,669 yards with 26 touchdowns and a mere three interceptions. The numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, and they certainly don’t put him at the forefront of discussions for individual awards like the Heisman Trophy.

But McCarron’s job is to lead his team to victory, which he’s done 24 times in Alabama’s last 26 games. He’s gotten some help, to be sure, from a great offensive line, dynamic running backs, and a suffocating defense. But McCarron and his underrated receiving corps have played a significant role.

“If you look at him on paper, he’s the most efficient quarterback in the country,” said Irish safety Matthias Farley of McCarron. “As far as consistency and making good decisions, he’s thrown like maybe three picks on a lot of attempts. He’s very efficient, he manages games well, and he’s been on this stage before. He definitely deserves more credit than he’s gotten.”

Alabama’s passing attack can be lethal because the ground game requires so much attention from opposing defenses. When McCarron connects, it’s often for large chunks. He averages 13.9 yards per completion and 9.3 yards per attempt, which helps explain his lofty passer rating.

McCarron has the No. 1 pass efficiency rating in the country. He averages 13.9 yards per completion and 9.3 yards per attempt. One out of every 7.3 of his completions and one out of every 11 attempts results in a touchdown.

One out of every 7.3 of McCarron’s completions and one out of every 11 attempts results in a touchdown. He only threw for more than 300 yards in a game twice this season and attempted 23 passes or less in nine out of 13 games. But he’s completed at least 60 percent in 11 out of 13 games.

“I personally respect him a lot, just watching him from last year in the BCS championship game,” said Notre Dame freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell. “He’s played extremely well, and this year, he only has three interceptions. His passer rating is amazing. He’s a great quarterback to me.”

Like McCarron, the Crimson Tide receiving corps doesn’t garner many headlines. Freshman Amari Cooper has become McCarron’s go-to guy with 53 catches for 895 yards (16.8 per reception) and nine touchdowns.

No other Bama receiver has half as many receptions as Cooper with lanky Kevin Norwood (26 catches, 395 yards, four touchdowns) and Christion Jones (25 receptions, 328 yards, four touchdowns) providing support to Cooper. Kenny Bell - the speediest receiver on the team - is trying to come back from a broken leg that limited him to 17 receptions. But he averaged a phenomenal 25.3 yards per catch, four of which went for touchdowns.

“All their receivers are explosive with home run, big threat ability,” Farley said. “You have to respect that, especially when you have a quarterback like theirs who is not going to make a mistake. You’ve got a great skill group. They run the ball, but those receivers are just as dynamic, so you have to respect that.”

As the season progressed, Cooper became an even greater threat.

“They’re more of a run team, but when he gets an opportunity to catch the ball, he makes the most of it,” said Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson of Cooper. “He’s a big, physical receiver. Maybe not blazing speed, but he has good size and he has great hands. He’ll attack the ball. He’s not afraid to get the ball in the air or take the big hit.”

Where the Irish secondary has to be careful - particularly safeties Farley and Zeke Motta - is getting lulled into overplaying the running game, and then getting beat over the top by Cooper and Co. That’s how Alabama won the SEC championship game.

“You just have to do your job,” Farley said. “You can’t try to do too much. If everyone is doing his assignment and reading his keys, it should be pretty smooth sailing as far as being locked in on your responsibility. Every snap is a new play, a fresh start, so you have to lock into your key for that play.

“You just read your keys,” Jackson said. “You read the end man on the line of scrimmage. If it’s a run play, you run have run support. If it’s pass play or we’re in man, you just keep your eyes on your man. So it’s really just technique and eyes and staying with your fundamentals.”

Russell, Notre Dame’s confident freshman cornerback, has assured his safeties that they’ll be able to help them stop the ground game by taking care of business on the Alabama receivers.

“We’re going to stop the run for sure,” Russell said. “I told Zeke and Matthias, don’t worry about the outside receivers. Me and Bennett are going to handle it.”


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