TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron scrambled, slid and felt the brace on his right leg slip. The black hunk of plastic and metal protecting his injured knee came loose, and the quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide had to play through it.
What did he do the following play? Run the ball, of course.
As the referees measured to see if the run was good enough for a first down, trainers rushed over to help McCarron with the brace. It wouldn't get in place, so they simply ripped it off. The kid wanted to play football. An equipment malfunction wasn't going to stop that.
It didn't matter whether he wore a knee brace or not, Mississippi State wasn't getting to McCarron on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. The junior from South Alabama had all the time he wanted behind his mammoth offensive line. McCarron stood tall and picked apart the vaunted Bulldogs secondary, exposing a pair of cornerbacks many consider future high-round draft picks.
No. 1 Alabama rolled over No. 11 Mississippi State 38-7, and the Crimson Tide's star quarterback took another step toward New York City and a seat at the Heisman Trophy table.
Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, who could be the first cornerback chosen in next year's NFL draft, came away impressed with Alabama and its quarterback. The way Banks spoke, the two soon could see each other on Sundays.
"I haven't played a team like that since I've been in college," Banks said. "AJ McCarron, I've got so much respect for the kid. He gets that team going. He managed the offense. He makes great decisions. I mean, he's an NFL quarterback."
McCarron finished 16-of-23 for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State. He did all that without attempting a single pass in the fourth quarter.
McCarron suffered a back contusion during the third quarter and was not made available to the media after the game. Coach Nick Saban said McCarron played well and could have continued if need be.
But with the way Alabama was manhandling Mississippi State, there was no reason for McCarron to continue. He and the Tide already had proved their point. McCarron already had knocked Mississippi State back into its place and, in the process, tied himself with John Parker Wilson for the second-most touchdown passes in a single season at Alabama with 18.
With four regular season games and the postseason remaining, Greg McElroy's record of 20 passing touchdowns in 2010 seems to be a forgone conclusion. McCarron will take that with ease and might pick up more hardware along the way.
Of all the Heisman candidates, McCarron might be the most under the radar. He has attempted only 18 fourth-quarter passes all season, so his 18 total passing touchdowns doesn't leap off the page. His efficiency does. He's No. 1 in the country in that category, but is he Heisman worthy?
"Right now, we don't really focus on that," said UA wide receiver Christion Jones, flashing a knowing smile after the game. "We keep it game by game. Whatever happens, happens in that respect."
Alabama tight end Michael Williams wouldn't say whether McCarron is the best quarterback in the country, but there's little doubt he's the best signal-caller for the Crimson Tide.
"He's our leader," Williams said. "We're going to follow our leader."
With McCarron at the helm, he and the Tide could be on convergent paths: Alabama looking more and more like a title contender and McCarron inching his way into the conversation as the game's most impressive player.
"He's a very smart quarterback," Jones said. "Last year, the national championship built his confidence for this season. I think we have a long way to go, and AJ is going to keep performing well night in, night out."
Overcoming Mississippi State's stingy pass defense -- the Bulldogs came into Saturday 21st in the country in that category -- was just another obstacle en route to next week's matchup against LSU.
The Tigers give up just 14.6 points per game on average. Alabama is averaging 40.6 points per game on offense.
Something will have to give, whether that's McCarron's arm or Les Miles' defense.