Greg McElroy got tired of hearing all the critics. So he did something about it.
The quarterback hit three passes of more than 40 yards, including two for touchdowns, to lead Alabama to a 31-3 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night.
McElroy has learned that being the Crimson Tide quarterback comes with close scrutiny, but for a night at least he won’t hear any complaints.
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“Three yards and a cloud of dust is pretty much the staple of our offense,” said McElroy, who was 13 for 18 for 192 yards and no interceptions. “But we have the ability to break it for a big play.”
That’s an ability Tide fans haven’t seen as much as they would like this season – until Saturday night.
McElroy threw scoring passes of 45 yards to Darius Hanks and 48 yards to Julio Jones and Mark Ingram ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run as the Crimson Tide (10-0, 7-0 SEC, ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, No. 2 in the BCS standings) improved to 10-0 for the second straight year, something that hasn’t happened since the 1973-74 seasons.
This is the 30th time in Alabama’s 115 years of football the Tide has reached 10 wins, second only to Oklahoma’s 31. Alabama has done it four times this decade.
With wins against Tennessee-Chattanooga and Auburn, the Tide could take a 12-0 record into the SEC title game against Florida for the second straight year.
Alabama fans can be hard on the players they love, something McElroy got to watch firsthand when John Parker Wilson was the quarterback.
McElroy told reporters this week that taking criticism is just part of the job.
Then he went about erasing at least some of the doubt about his ability to lead the Tide to a national title, leading Alabama to a turnover- and penalty-free effort.
He got the Alabama offense rolling in the second quarter when he found Hanks wide open near the left sideline about 20 yards downfield. Hanks broke a tackle about 10 yards from the end zone and scored – and got the Tide thinking how much fun it might be to make another.
“One big quick play, you can’t beat it,” Hanks said after scoring the longest touchdown of his career. “One play and you’re out of there.”
After building a 17-0, Alabama went back to quick-strike mode in the fourth quarter. The Tide engineered two one-play drives to end any Mississippi State hopes. First, McElroy found Jones all alone around the 15 and hit him in stride for his second long scoring pass.
Then on the ensuing drive, Ingram found an opening in the middle and accelerated untouched through an exhausted Bulldogs defense.
The play was in sharp contrast to what the rest of the game was like for the Heisman Trophy candidate. Until that run, he had a fairly workmanlike performance with just two carries of more than 10 yards and seemed headed for a quiet night. Though he did follow gargantuan defensive tackle Terrence Cody in from the 1 to give Alabama a 14-0 lead at halftime.
Like McElroy, Ingram feels he has some critics to answer – and that run was quite the retort.
“Everybody thinks I’m just a power back, but I’ve got speed, too,” said Ingram, who rushed for 149 yards. “That was big.”
The defense came up with several big plays, too.
Mark Barron picked off his SEC leading fifth and sixth interceptions, ending two potential scoring drives. Marquis Johnson batted away two potential touchdown passes to O’Neal Wilder, forced a field goal with another strong play in the end zone, then picked off a pass of his own.
“We had some opportunities to make some big plays, but obviously we didn’t,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “We’re going to work hard on that and pretty soon we’re going to be the ones making the big plays.”
The Crimson Tide defense held the Bulldogs to 83 first-half yards and 213 total. Only Anthony Dixon had any luck against Alabama with 140 all-purpose yards.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he can still find flaws in his team (the kickoff return coverage wasn’t so great, for example), but his players came away with the feeling that everything’s starting to come together.
“We’re gelling as a team, not overlooking the small things,” wide receiver Marquis Maze said. “We fought hard all night and executed really well, I though. That’s what it’s all about.”