TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A quarterback described as a game manager can often be perceived as someone who’s mostly responsible for supervising plays and not making them.
Unless the QB is AJ McCarron and he plays for Nick Saban.
The coach of top-ranked Alabama considers it the highest praise. No. 5 LSU (7-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) would love to get a McCarron-like, efficient performance from Zach Mettenberger Saturday night in Baton Rouge where both passers will be supported by punishing tailbacks and terrific defenses.
McCarron has been the consummate game manager even with 18 touchdown passes.
“I don’t think it’s fair to AJ that because I said he’s a really good game manager for us that it’s like that means he doesn’t do anything,” Saban said. “He does everything. I don’t think you can be a good quarterback unless you’re a really good game manager.”
That’s the ultimate compliment, to me.”
McCarron has been the nation’s most efficient passer with a quarterback rating of 182.4 for Alabama (8-0, 5-0). He’s thrown 262 passes without an interception dating back to last season, second-longest in SEC history behind the 325-pass streak by Kentucky’s Andre’ Woodson.
McCarron wants to clear up what being a game manager means in his eyes.
“What I think and then what the media tries to make a game manager out to be is two totally different things,” he said. “I probably think more along the lines of coach Saban. A game manager can be anything. I mean, he can throw nine touchdowns in one game but he still managed the game. He could hand the ball off 47 times but still manage the game.
“I think coach, in that aspect, is saying he’s taking what the defense is giving him and he’s not making any real bonehead mistakes. And that’s the biggest thing. People nowadays love to see the ball being slung around and everything but that’s not our style of play. So I’m going to, like what coach always, take what the defense gives me and ... eventually they’ll give you the game.”
The strong-armed Mettenberger might still be finding his way toward the game manager role in his first year as starter. He hasn’t completed 50 percent of his passes in any of the last three games — all against ranked SEC teams — and has one touchdown pass, two interceptions and a modest 403 passing yards during that stretch.
Mettenberger has been intercepted a modest four times through eight games.
Running back Michael Ford and his teammates are standing by their quarterback.
“He throws a little bad ball and everybody jumps on his back,” Ford said. “We’ve just got to go out there and give him confidence.”
It’s Mettenberger’s first time playing in an Alabama-LSU confrontation. He knows the big-game drill, though.
“You have to be level-headed,” Mettenberger said. “You can’t get too jacked up or you will start throwing balls in the stands. You can’t play with your tail tucked between legs or you’ll play too timid. It’s a fine line, between looking too relaxed and being too jacked up. A quarterback has to do a good job keeping your emotions in check during the game.
“You want to get amped up, but at the same time I don’t have to go hit anybody. I’ll definitely be ready to go for this game, I promise you that.”
Taking care of the ball is an important challenge for both quarterbacks. Alabama’s defense leads the SEC with 14 interceptions and LSU is second with 13.
Tide cornerback Dee Milliner said Mettenberger is a “great quarterback, a big-armed quarterback.”
“He does a great job of operating and knowing what the defense does and hits the key holes on pass plays,” Milliner said. “He’s checking a lot and doing some great things. We’ve got to come in and try to throw some different things at him, different schemes to try to mix him up.”
McCarron was solid in the first meeting last season and was offensive MVP of the BCS championship game with an impressive performance, keeping LSU off-guard with frequent passes on first down.
LSU defenders said they see a big difference in McCarron this season.
“He’s improved a lot,” Tigers linebacker Kevin Minter said. “He’s a totally different person. His confidence is through the roof right now. You can just tell. He’s very comfortable back there passing the ball. You can just see it in his play and his stats. That’s why he’s a dark horse to win the Heisman. The guy is just doing his thing this year.”
McCarron said that means taking care of the ball and capitalizing on what the defense gives you.
Managing the game, in other words. Saban would much rather take a throwaway or a scramble for a few yards than a pass that hands it right back to the opposing offense.
He’s old-fashioned that way.
“We have an old saying that if every offensive series ends with a kick, whether it’s a punt, a field goal or an extra point, that’s pretty good,” Saban said. “Could be worse. When you give the ball away to the other guys, that’s never a good thing. It has a really significant impact on the outcome of games.
“AJ has done a good job of taking care of the ball. That’s going to be really, really important as we continue to press through the season.”