Gators couldn't solve McElroy
ATLANTA -- The Other Quarterback took a knee, and the jubilation started.
He jumped. He pumped his fists. He flashed two fingers on each hand to the Alabama fans -- symbolic of the Crimson Tide's 22nd Southeastern Conference championship.
He took another knee. The game was over. Alabama had delivered a dominant dethroning of Florida, 32-13, and The Other Quarterback was reveling in the moment.
"It was kind of surreal," he said.
Prevailing pregame wisdom held that the biggest difference between the No. 1 Gators and the No. 2 Tide was at quarterback. Tim Tebow was the rise-to-the-big-occasion playmaker, among the most decorated and celebrated players in college football history, chasing a second Heisman Trophy and a third national title. Meanwhile, Alabama was chugging along with this afterthought QB whom many people considered merely a game manager, not a game changer.
No Alabama fans mimic Greg McElroy's eyeblack, and he puts no scripture references on it (in fact, it's the old-fashioned, smear-on eyeblack, not the adhesive kind). At 220 pounds, he lacks the 240-pound Tebow's imposing body, not to mention Tebow's imposing body of work. And even after a solid season as the starter for an undefeated team, nobody liked his chances of outplaying Florida's No. 15 here.
Yet when the knees were taken and the clock had run out, it was McElroy, not Tebow, who went racing off to celebrate. Game ball tucked in one hand, he sprinted to the corner of the Georgia Dome and leaped into the Alabama fans, who mobbed him euphorically.
"You leave the field wondering who was the Heisman candidate coming into the game," Tide offensive lineman Mike Johnson said. "He played lights out. He plays with such a big heart."
For one magical day -- the biggest day of the 2009 season to date -- Greg McElroy out-Tebowed Tim Tebow. He threw for 239 yards and a touchdown, completing 12 of 18 passes against the No. 1 defense in America. He scrambled with verve, hopping on one foot down the sidelines and spinning past tacklers in the red zone. He threw a big block. He made no significant errors (while Tebow threw an interception in the end zone).
And he had the sheer pleasure of ending this stunning mismatch in the victory formation.
"I think it all came full circle in the sense that all the things we've done," McElroy said. "All the 110s we've run, and the blood, sweat, conditioning, all the reps in the weight room, that's what it's all for -- taking a knee against Florida to win the SEC championship."
Then they capped off the day by handing the Most Valuable Player trophy to The Other Quarterback. He accepted it with what seemed to be sincere humility.
"It wasn't me outshining Tebow," he said. "It was about Alabama tonight."
For much of his life, the story has been about something or someone else. McElroy has been The Other Quarterback for a long time now.
At Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, he backed up future Missouri star Chase Daniel until finally taking over as the starter his senior year. He didn't get a scholarship offer from Texas, and originally committed to Texas Tech. That changed when then-Alabama coach Mike Shula offered him a scholarship -- but only after Shula was turned down by a kid named Tim Tebow.
Upon arrival in Tuscaloosa, McElroy redshirted and then spent two seasons backing up John Parker Wilson. Until this fall, he'd spent just one of his previous six seasons as a staring QB. And he'd only thrown 20 passes in an Alabama uniform.
Concerns about McElroy dissipated almost immediately when he hit Virginia Tech for 230 passing yards and a touchdown in the season opener right here in the Georgia Dome. (Something about this building agrees with the kid.) After his first five games, he'd thrown nine touchdowns and only one interception, looking like he should have been starting for the Tide for the previous two seasons as well.
Then the struggles began. He was bad against Mississippi (just 15-of-34), worse against South Carolina (two interceptions) and not much better against Tennessee (120 passing yards and failed to get the Tide into the end zone). The preseason concerns returned in a hurry.
McElroy rebounded in Alabama's final four games of the regular season, highlighted by completing seven passes on the game-winning drive at Auburn to keep the Tide's national championship hopes alive. But you couldn't find anyone other than maybe McElroy's parents who believed he'd significantly outplay Tebow in this pressure-packed game.
He did, though. Emphatically. And it began immediately.
On the first play of the game, McElroy dropped back, eyeballed tight end Colin Peek in the flat, saw him covered, then redirected and fired an 18-yard strike to Julio Jones over the middle. He completed a couple of more passes and had a 7-yard scramble as Alabama drove for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
He started the next possession with a pass to Peek for 19 yards, and had a 15-yard throw to Marquis Maze on a third-and-7 play. Four plays later, Alabama scored a touchdown, and alarm rippled through the Florida half of the dome. The Gators were stunned to see their formidable defense being torn apart.
In the second quarter, McElroy threw a hefty block on an extra-effort run by Trent Richardson, possibly flexing at the Florida bench after the play -- though he denied it afterward.
"As far as the muscle pose is concern, I don't have a lot to show off, so no," McElroy said. "And if I did so, it was totally by accident."
He had something of an accidentally athletic scramble later on the drive, on third-and-5 from the Florida 22. He rolled right and tightroped the sideline, hopping on his right foot twice to stay inbounds before falling for the first down. A field goal put the Tide up 12-3.
After Florida quickly answered with what would be its only touchdown drive of the day, McElroy struck again. He threw a screen pass to Alabama Heisman candidate Mark Ingram, who broke it 69 yards to set up a short scoring run and make the score 19-10.
When Alabama took the game away in the third quarter, McElroy did the most damage with a 28-yard pass to Maze and a 17-yard touchdown throw to Peek. And on the first play of the fourth quarter -- just after Tebow had tried to rally the Gators with a fiery talk on the sidelines -- McElroy had his last dazzling scramble, spinning past tacklers for 8 yards to the Florida 2. Two plays later, Ingram scored to produce the final margin.
McElroy didn't throw a single pass in the fourth quarter. Didn't have to.
When it was over and the confetti was still falling from the ceiling, someone asked McElroy who he wanted to face in the Citi BCS Championship Game.
"I want the Longhorns," he said with a smile.
He would, of course, be The Other Quarterback to Colt McCoy in that matchup. But you get the feeling that's just fine with Greg McElroy.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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