TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s Greg McElroy shouldn’t feel too badly.
He’s the quarterback of the nation’s No. 1 team, after all. And when he is not on the top of his game, McElroy has the luxury of handing off to the Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher, Mark Ingram, and relying on the nation’s third-ranked defense to make up for his miscues.
For further comfort he turns to the NFL, where rookie Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets was intercepted five times on Sunday, three more than McElroy threw the night before against South Carolina.
“You have to put it behind you,” McElroy said Monday. “That’s why we play 12 of these things. We play them every Saturday. It’s unfortunate and you’d like to have a great game every week. But look at Mark Sanchez, he threw five interceptions yesterday.
“It’s his first year starting in the NFL. It’s my first year starting in college. You’re going to have some ups and downs. Fortunately for me, I’ve got some great players around me to help me out with those ups and downs.”
In other words, McElroy doesn’t have to be perfect, even he wants to be. He was far from it against the Gamecocks in his shakiest game as Alabama’s starter.
His first pass was thrown behind the receiver and intercepted. His fourth pass was thrown into tight coverage and picked off, as well.
The whole game was a struggle for McElroy, but the Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) still won 20-6 and moved into the top spot in the rankings heading into Saturday’s visit from rival Tennessee.
Alabama is second in the BCS standings behind Florida.
The past two games have been a departure for McElroy, who had a rough first half in the opener against Virginia Tech but then settled into his role as the new leader of a national championship team nicely. He is 25-of-54 passing for 239 yards in games against Mississippi and South Carolina with no touchdown passes and those two interceptions.
They ended a streak of 141 passes without getting picked.
“He’s such a good competitor, he doesn’t want to go out there and not play to his top level, what he expects to be playing at,” said tight end Colin Peek, the Tide’s leading receiver. “I think that’s going to make Greg work harder. He’s that type of guy, that type of leader. Even though he may have been having difficulties … he never lost that leadership factor in himself that, ‘Hey, I’m going to help lead this team. It may not be my night, but I’m going to make sure it’s someone else’s night.’”
McElroy’s recent issues haven’t cost the Tide much beyond style points and a few tense moments. Ingram responded with 246 rushing yards against the Gamecocks, and the defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in two straight games.
“I just think everything is about timing and confidence and reading the defense and throwing the ball the right place, which has been his strength,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “In the last two games he’s just not had that same confidence in terms of where to go with the ball and what to do with it. We definitely need to get that back, because he’s too good a player.”
McElroy isn’t exactly easy on himself after tough games, even though he knows quarterbacks have to move on quickly.
“You want to grade out perfect,” he said. “That’s everyone’s goal. You want to have a perfect game. I’m a perfectionist, that’s just the way I’ve been taught. If you don’t do things right, then why do them at all?”
McElroy does have plenty weapons. He has steady targets in Peek and Ingram out of the backfield, who both have a team-high 19 catches. Receiver Julio Jones has a modest 13 catches for 175 yards but showed his abilities with a huge freshman season, and Marquis Maze has been a solid receiver.
Ingram has thrust his name into the Heisman Trophy conversation with 905 yards and eight touchdowns. Trent Richardson, Terry Grant and Roy Upchurch have also been productive in the backfield.
“We’ve got too many skill players not to be able to get them the ball so that we can make explosive plays in the passing game,” Saban said. “It was not what we needed it to be in the game, and we definitely need to improve on it.”
TIDE TALK: Saban said cornerback/return man Javier Arenas (bruised ribs), defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick (back spasms), noseguard Josh Chapman (abdominal strain) are all day-to-day. Arenas and Chapman missed the South Carolina game. As for Arenas, Saban said: “This is not an injury that is something that is going to get worse. This is an injury that is strictly when you can manage the pain, you’re fine. But managing the pain, it still hurts, it’s still a problem. The biggest problem is when he really tries to open up and go fast and all that.”
John Zenor/The Associated Press