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October 20, 2009

Passing woes

TUSCALOOSA _ One has to wonder what this week has been like for University of Alabama junior quarterback Greg McElroy.

Until very recently, his passing numbers were comparable to anyone in the nation. He was getting players involved in the offense, hitting receivers all over the field and avoiding turnovers.

However, the South Carolina game was a different story. He had two of his first four passes picked off, never got into a rhythm and looked uncomfortable and frustrated. The 92-yard performance left him saying two days later, "I put so much pressure on myself, I can't even see straight sometimes."

The bump in his development has caught many fans by surprise, even though most quarterbacks go through this in some form, and he's only been a starter at the collegiate level for seven games. But if this season has proven anything so far, it's that McElroy can be streaky.

His 14 consecutive completions against Florida International set an Alabama record and he tied the mark for highest completion percentage with a minimum of 10 completions, going 13 for 15 (86.7 percent) against North Texas. That came after a string of nine passes without a completion against Virginia Tech, when he started a streak of 141 passes without an interception, which ranks third in Tide history behind Brodie Croyle (190) and Jay Barker (155).

Yet when you compare his last three games to the three before that, he's statistically been like two different quarterbacks.

Against Kentucky, Ole Miss and South Carolina, he was 40-of-80 (.500) for 387 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Using the elaborate and complex NCAA passer-efficiency formula it works out to a 93.885 rating.

Against Florida International, North Texas and Arkansas, he's 48-of-63 (.761) for 708 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. That's an astronomical rating of 296.4.

To put that further into perspective, if you compared both efficiency ratings to the season totals for every quarterback in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the 93.885 wouldn't rank in the top 100 while the 296.4 would lead the nation by roughly 125 points.

Put together, his 137.57 rating ranks 40th overall, fourth in the conference. He's completed 103 of 173 passes (59.5 percent) for 1,325 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

Numerous factors have contributed to the contrast.

The competition improved
Alabama started playing tougher defenses. While Arkansas ranks dead last in SEC pass defense (253.7 yards per game), South Carolina is third (142.6), Ole Miss is fourth (152.3) and Kentucky is essentially tied with Alabama for sixth (163.4).

This week's opponent, Tennessee, ranks 13th nationally in total defense and is led by safety Eric Berry.

"He's a guy who can change the way an offense looks," McElroy said. "He's a guy who can really change the game with his range and speed and as well as he can cover. He's a guy we're going to have to try and neutralize as best as we can.

"A lot of great players in this league. It seems like every week there's another superstar on the other side of the ball. Last week Eric Norwood, this week Eric Berry. One of these weeks we're going to catch a break and not face a future first-round pick."

Defenses have adjusted
While the SEC obviously has some of the country's top head coaches, it also has some of the best coordinators and assistants, who spend much of the offseason scheming against upcoming opponents. Although they're prone to borrow ideas from one another, each week McElroy has seen something different and No. 2 Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC) has been getting every team's best shot.

For example, Kentucky had its defensive backs move while McElroy was calling his cadence while South Carolina used pre-snap shifts.

Paying closer attention to the safeties, who usually tip off the coverage (especially with how they react to players going in motion), can help McElroy with his reads. As for the shifts, they came at a price, with sophomore running back Mark Ingram gaining 246 rushing yards.

"South Carolina did a pretty good job of doing that, but considering we weren't expecting too much of it I think we did an even better job of adjusting to it," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "Some of the slants and things hurt them some of the time, getting out of their gaps at certain points.

"It comes with the territory and hopefully we did a good enough job of it this week that it'll kind of keep teams from doing it in the future."

His teammates
The pass-rush off the ends has been at times problematic, especially against Ole Miss and South Carolina in cold and windy conditions. The Gamecocks and Rebels are also tied for fourth in sacks (15), and Ole Miss leads the league in limiting third-down conversions (23.4 percent).

Although it hasn't necessarily translated into sacks, he's obviously been affected.

"South Carolina probably did the best job of having the correct players in the correct positions," McElroy said. "They made things difficult with their changing looks and disguising things. In this league you're going to play good defenses that are extremely well coached and diligent. They're very good at what they do.

"You have to put it behind you. That's why we play 12 of these things."

Additionally, by our count Alabama has had 13 dropped passes, with sophomore Julio Jones, who has had knee and ankle problems, surprisingly leading the team with five and senior tight end Colin Peek with four. Many have come early in the game, which can mess with a quarterback's rhythm and confidence.

"Our defense is playing phenomenal football," Peek said. "The only I feel we're going to lose a game, or have troubles, is if our offense doesn't produce the way we need to. That's something we put on our shoulders.

"We're halfway through the season. I think we're still improving as an offense. But you can't put the blame on one person."

Although McElroy needs to make the right decision, reads and throws, his overall play can be directly related to familiarity, experience and confidence. Those close to McElroy say the South Carolina game will only make him work harder, but simultaneously the coaching staff will try and keep him from pressing too hard and forcing passes like he did to Jones at Ole Miss.

"I think number one you've got to go back to what got you there and you've got to have simple goals, in terms of what you want to accomplish, and you've got to remember the fundamental things that are most important to you being able to execute and playing winning football at your position," Coach Nick Saban said. "I think we've got to get back to that and maybe we're trying to do too much and maybe we're putting too much pressure on ourselves.

"I also think the people around us on our offense need to continue to improve the way they play, so the quarterback feels comfortable and confident that he is going to be protected, not going to get pressure in the pocket and are we going to have time to read and set our feet and throw the ball where we are supposed to, all of those things to me are part of what we need to improve on. We've got too many good skill players not to be able to get them the ball so we can make explosive plays in the passing game. It's not what we need it to be. It was not what we needed it to be in the game and we definitely need to improve on it."

Some games will go better than others, but a balanced attack, getting numerous players involved in the offense and avoiding turnovers will remain the focus and the key to the Tide's overall offensive success down the stretch run.

"I'm a perfectionist, that's just what I've been taught," McElroy said. "You don't do things right then why do them at all?"


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