TUSCALOOSA | Western Kentucky sold its soul to stop a domineering University of Alabama rushing attack, and the Hilltoppers paid the price via a dissection of their secondary conducted by the precision passing of AJ McCarron.
While Western Kentucky stacked the box with eight and nine defenders, McCarron was efficient and precise tossing four touchdown passes - two each to Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood - in a 219-yard passing performance Saturday in the Crimson Tide's home-opener.
After being bulldozed by a Crimson avalanche on its first defensive series when UA went 72 yards in four plays for a score, Western Kentucky made the decision to limit the rush. It was not overwhelming, but it was effective.
Alabama rushed for 232 yards against Michigan, but was held to 103 Saturday, 32 of which came on freshman Kenyan Drake's 32-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
Committing so many defenders to limit the run made the Hilltoppers susceptible to the pass, and McCarron and his receivers had a field day.
The junior finished a tidy 14 of 19, completing passes to seven different targets. Norwood grabbed three receptions for 92 yards and Jones added three for 47. Freshman running back T.J. Yeldon led the team with four catches for 47 yards.
McCarron got started early, connecting with Norwood for 47 yards on the game's second play and two plays later found Jones for a 14-yard score.
"I thought Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and the receivers made some big plays," UA coach Nick Saban said. "AJ made some very good plays today."
But it wasn't all success in the passing game, as Western Kentucky registered six sacks for minus-48 yards. Alabama allowed a total of 17 sacks in 2011.
"Three or four of those were guys just got beat," Saban said. "A couple of them were pressures that we didn't pick up properly. So that's something that we definitely need to get better on."
The good news is that Norwood continued to show signs of being a go-to receiver and Jones proved capable of making big plays. The highlight of the day came on Jones' 22-yard juggling, toe-tap touchdown grab in the second quarter.
"It was something that we practice every day," Jones said. "It's just about me getting my timing right with AJ and everyone else. I'm playing at full speed and finding a way to get open."
Jones didn't record a catch against Michigan. Saban said as Jones' consistency improves so will the passing game.
"I think he's made nice progress, especially as a receiver," Saban said. "He's got really good speed and quickness and can really come out of a break and accelerate. I just think he needs to develop confidence as a receiver by continuing to play and make plays. Hopefully each game is going to help him improve."
Norwood had his breakout game in the BCS title game. Through two games he's proving it's no fluke.
"Well we haven't really done anything at the moment," Norwood said. "We're still working hard. But that's one thing that we're working towards, letting everybody know that the receiving corps is here, and we're going to be physical and at the same time make plays."
McCarron was 8 of 10 for 161 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Alabama's offense was sluggish in the second half, and McCarron fell off the pace. He completed 6 of 9 passes for just 58 yards over the final two quarters.
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.