Cory Mccartney
Sunday September 6th, 2009

For the first time Greg McElroy can remember, the seeds of doubt were there.

He was no stranger to pressure. In high school, he had to fill the shoes of future Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel at Southlake Carroll (Texas). But this was different.

After Virginia Tech's Dyrell Roberts returned a kickoff 98 yards to give the No. 7 Hokies a 7-6 first-quarter lead on No. 5 Alabama, McElroy, the Crimson Tide's first-time starter, looked up at the scoreboard and the 74,954 in attendance in the Georgia Dome, the gravity of it all caught up with him.

"I started doubting myself a little bit," McElroy said. "That wasn't a situation I'm used to ... I can't say I've ever doubted myself as a starting quarterback."

But the redshirt junior and the Tide would overcome a shaky start behind its defense and a powerful running game, to beat the Hokies 34-24 and, at least for now, answer the nagging questions surrounding Nick Saban's offense.

The defense was never in doubt. 'Bama's Terrence Cody-led front held Virginia Tech to 155 total yards, and limited the mobility of Hokies QB Tyrod Taylor (though you wonder if his offseason commitment to becoming more of a passing QB did that for the Tide). Any apprehension was directed toward an offense that had to replace a top-five draft pick at left tackle in Andre Smith, John Parker Wilson, the program's all-time leading passer, its leading rusher from a year ago, Glen Coffee and all-SEC center Antoine Caldwell.

But as the final moments wound down, McElroy jumped into the arms of Barrett Jones, smacking the right guard on the helmet, then walked up and down his offensive linemen, hitting their crimson helmets, including that of new left tackle James Carpenter and new center William Vlachos, who more than held their own.

With 498 total yards, it seems there's no lack of offense in Tuscaloosa. The Tide still have a punishing ground game and an offensive line that can open up holes for the deep running back corps. On the surface, this year's Tide don't look like they've lost much of what made them the nation's No. 1 for five weeks last season. But like McElroy admits, questions swirled around the quarterback position, both from the QB himself and anyone watching his starting debut.

His first two series were his first as a starter since his final year at Southlake Carroll in 2005 as he polished off a 63-1 record -- and it showed. The touch just wasn't there on his deep ball, as he overthrew both Julio Jones and Darius Hanks on sure-fire touchdowns and nearly threw an interception deep in Hokies territory that would have been returned for a touchdown. In all, he missed nine of his first-half passes.

McElroy wasn't expected to be much more than a caretaker; simply get the ball into the hands of playmakers like Jones and Mark Ingram. Play within the offense and allow a defensive front seven that rivals any in the country and everything will be fine.

But McElroy showed he can be both caretaker and playmaker at the same time because of those playmakers around him. While he allowed the Ingram and Roy Upchurch-led running game (which totaled 268 behind 150 from Ingram in showing it's still plenty potent minus Coffee) to open up passing lanes in the second half in throwing for 230 yards, a TD and a pick, he wasn't afraid to show he had something his predecessor didn't: Mobility. He rushed for 28 yards on nine carries that earned his 6-foot-3, 220 pound frame a beating.

"Greg was a leader for us," lineman Mike Johnson said. "He stepped in and did a phenomenal job of making plays."

Still, for all the positives that came out of Alabama's offense as it tried to pick up the pieces from last season's late collapse in the SEC Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl, this isn't a team without its pimples.

The Tide held a 498-155 edge in total offense, yet when the fourth quarter began, they trailed the Hokies 17-16. It was 'Bama's mistakes and a touch of Beamer Ball that kept Virginia Tech in the game as the Tide allowed the special teams TD, committed three penalties -- including a personal foul by their all-SEC linebacker Rolando McClain that set up a touchdown and another return gaffe and flag that set up a late Hokies' score, cutting the lead to three with 9:22 to play.

"It was self-inflicted wounds and mental mistakes," said tight end Collin Peek. "When you leave that door open for such a tremendous team, you know you've got to do something about it."

But Peek and the rest of the Tide can take solace in the fact that when Virginia Tech threatened late, the 'Bama offense did exactly that. When Virginia Tech made it 27-24, McElroy led the Tide on a five-play, 74-yard drive punctuated by an 18-yard TD pass to Ingram, the first of his career, to seize a 10-point lead.

"Tonight is the first step in creating an identity for this team," Saban said.

That identity revolves around roles. As Sweet Home Alabama blared through the Georgia Dome speakers and ABC's cameras rolled his first postgame remarks, McElroy had clearly found comfort in his new one.

"I've never been so happy in my entire life after a game," McElroy said. "The fans were ecstatic. I was ecstatic."

The truth is, McElroy did what he needed to do in his debut. He eased his own doubts and answered the critics. And on this night, that was enough.

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