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He was the last player left on the field, jogging alone toward the northwest corner of the Georgia Dome late last Saturday night. But before Greg McElroy reached the portal that would take him to the locker room, the Alabama quarterback looked up at the thousands of lingering Crimson Tide fans in the stands and waved his right index finger in the air.
Alabama isn't the best team in the country. In fact, it's not even the best team in the SEC. Until proven otherwise, that honor would go to defending national champion Florida. But you can forgive McElroy for his exuberance, because in his first collegiate start the 6'3", 220-pound redshirt junior limited his mistakes, competently ran the offense and made enough clutch throws to propel No. 5 Alabama to a 34--24 victory over No. 7 Virginia Tech. A thing of beauty it wasn't, but McElroy doesn't need to be Joe Namath, not when the Crimson Tide boasts one of the biggest, baddest, fastest defenses in the land. Just how suffocating was that D in Atlanta? The Hokies converted only 2 of 12 third-down plays and were limited to 155 yards of total offense—148 yards fewer than they averaged last year.
"It was a good start," McElroy said after he completed 15 of 30 for 230 yards with one touchdown and one interception. "I'm excited about where this offense can go."
At halftime, however, McElroy was a mess. The Tide trailed 17--16, and he had connected on only 6 of 18 passes. As he paced around the locker room talking to himself—It's not how you start, it's how you finish—former Alabama running back Shaun Alexander walked up. "Take it easy," Alexander told McElroy. "It will come."
The words had a calming effect on McElroy, who in the second half would complete 9 of 12 attempts for 136 yards. The game turned with 12:51 left and the Crimson Tide still trailing by one. That's when McElroy lofted a 48-yard rainbow into the hands of wide receiver Marquise Maze, who was tackled at the six. On the next play sophomore running back Mark Ingram blasted through the middle for a touchdown. Alabama, which would finish with 498 total yards, never trailed again.
Just three days before the game, Ingram didn't even know if he'd be in uniform. He had been declared ineligible by the school pending an NCAA investigation into a Gulf Coast fishing trip he had taken in the spring with wideout Julio Jones that was paid for by a Georgia businessman. The NCAA found nothing nefarious and reinstated the pair. (The two players have since paid for the trip.)
For the Tide that proved to be a defining ruling, because Ingram shredded the Hokies in the second half, gaining 94 of his career-high 150 rushing yards. At 5'10" and 215 pounds, Ingram has a style like the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Westbrook, the way he slashes through the line, powers through tackles and runs away from defenders. Ingram, whose father, Mark, is a former NFL wideout, set a freshman team record for touchdowns (12), and on Saturday he took the snap in the Wildcat formation on eight plays. He also scored the clinching touchdown, on an 18-yard pass from McElroy. Said Ingram outside the locker room in a voice barely louder than a whisper, "I'm just trying to make a name for myself."
That's what McElroy is attempting to do as well. Four days before kickoff against Virginia Tech, McElroy sat in the Crimson Tide football offices and guaranteed one thing: He would be as mentally prepared as anyone on the field. "I've been getting ready for this moment basically my entire life," he said. "Even when I've been on the sideline, and this goes back to high school, I've played the games in my mind. I've taken thousands of reps in my head."
At Southlake Carroll High outside Dallas, McElroy sat for two years behind Chase Daniel, who went on to star at Missouri. After throwing a state-record 56 touchdown passes in his senior season, McElroy stood on the Alabama sideline as a redshirt and for two more years backed up John Parker Wilson.
But now his wait is over. "And you know what?" McElroy said as he walked out of the football offices and into the searing Alabama heat. "It's been worth it. Because I'm ready for this."