Tide’s McElroy enjoys breakout party vs. Florida

As expected, it came down to the leadership of the quarterback. One player lifting his team, showing his emotions, making everybody around him better, completing crucial passes. One quarterback managing the clock, pumping his fists, taking the game on his shoulders, and, when it was all over, holding the game ball aloft for a throng of cheering fans.

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There was only one problem if you were a Florida fan — that quarterback wasn’t Tim Tebow.

The unlikely hero in Alabama’s gut-busting Gator wallop in the SEC Championship was Greg McElroy, the most maligned snap-taker on any of the teams vying for the national championship. McElroy surprised everyone, going 12-for-18 for 239 yards in the air and running for another 10. He also threw a couple of crucial blocks and tiptoed down the sideline on a rollout option for a critical first down — in short, doing all the things Tebow was supposed to do.

Who would have figured? Two months ago, McElroy was a basket case. At Ole Miss, the QB went 15-for-34 for 147 yards and no touchdowns. He completed 50 percent against South Carolina, with two picks, and played so badly during the first half of the LSU game that Nick Saban spent most of the intermission ripping his QB a new orifice. Nobody thought McElroy would have his best performance in the biggest game of the year against the No. 1 defense in the country.

Urban Meyer didn’t expect it. From the get-go, Florida’s defensive strategy seemed simple: load the box, stop Ingram and make McElroy beat them. That went out the window in the first drive, when Saban put his quarterback alone in the backfield and spread receivers wide on both sides. By the time defensive coordinator Charlie Strong adjusted, Florida was playing catch-up.

Ingram certainly helped. Once Florida realized that McElroy could, indeed, throw the ball, the defense loosened, and Alabama’s Heisman hopeful gained 113 yards rushing and another 76 receiving, most of that coming on a 66-yard run after catching a screen pass that McElroy read perfectly.

“He made some great plays,” Meyer begrudgingly said of McElroy. “He showed a lot of poise for a first-year quarterback. You saw it coming. He showed a lot of progress last week against Auburn. And those things usually accelerate a quarterback’s progress.”

Maybe, but one drive against an inferior Auburn defense did not magically turn McElroy into Tom Brady. Perhaps it was something Sage Saban said that turned him around, although that’s hard to imagine since six weeks ago the head coach was throwing out such effusive accolades as “He’s learning,” “He’ll get better” and “It’s a process.”

Maybe it was the Sugar Ray Leonard anecdote Coach Cool Hair told his team before the game. “Leonard said, ‘The first time I fought in a championship fight I lost,'” Saban said. “‘I prepared. I knew the strengths and weaknesses (of my opponent), I was in great shape. The thing I remember about the second time I fought for the championship and won was that I had an unrelenting, not-to-be-denied, intangible attitude, and I was going to do it for 15 rounds and go toe-to-toe. And that’s what made me win.'”

Yeah, that and a killer jab.

So maybe, just maybe, McElroy, who, despite his shaky numbers, led Alabama to a 12-0 regular season and came to Atlanta having never lost a game as a starter, believed he could do it all along. It was just a matter of getting the opportunity.

“I take the good with the bad, and go out there and have fun with the game.”
&#151 Greg McElroy

“No matter what, as long as you play this game, you’re going to have ups and downs,” McElroy said. “You have to always have that faith in yourself and the people around you. It was about having the heart and determination to get the job done. That’s what we were able to do.”

After it was over, McElroy even sounded like Tebow. He praised his offensive line, his coaches, the “whole team effort” and every fan who ever donned an Alabama cap.

Then he got to the crux of the matter. “I think everybody wants to be praised and celebrated all the time, but that’s not the nature of the beast,” he said. “As long as you have faith in yourself and continue to enjoy what you do and what you put in a lot of time for, then you will be successful. At this position, yes, you take the good with the bad. Oftentimes you get way too much credit, and you get a lot of blame, too. I take the good with the bad, and go out there and have fun with the game.”

Faith in yourself and having fun in the game: Could it really be that simple?

McElroy would answer with a shrug. And then walk away holding the MVP trophy and the game ball from the biggest college football game of the year.