Greg McElroy was putting up big numbers as the quarterback for a national championship contender.
It’s no surprise that No. 3 Alabama’s first-year starter crept into the Heisman Trophy conversation a few games into the season. That was Lesson No. 1 for McElroy: Don’t buy the hype.
Lesson No. 2: Praise quickly can turn into criticism when things stop going so well.
“Obviously, you can read into those things and it can get to you,” McElroy said of the Heisman talk. “It might have a little bit with me. Right now, we’ve gotten back to what we do best, and that’s taking care of the football and moving methodically up and down the field.
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“That’s what’s going to win us games. That’s what has won us games.”
McElroy and No. 9 LSU’s first-year starter, Jordan Jefferson — whose teams meet Saturday — have the luxury of talented supporting casts. They also share the scrutiny of quarterbacks leading teams in the hunt for national and Southeastern Conference titles.
“People build you up to break you down,” McElroy said. “I’ve experienced that a little bit this year. It’s unfortunate.”
McElroy has still guided Alabama to an 8-0 start, even though he hasn’t reached 150 yards passing in any of the last four games. The Tigers (7-1, 4-1) have only lost once, and Jefferson has completed two-thirds of his passes with four touchdowns against one interception in the two games since getting shut down by top-ranked Florida.
McElroy and Jefferson have put up solid numbers, but more importantly, they have avoided doing the things that could get their teams beaten. Jefferson has been picked off four times, McElroy three.
Both already have big-game experience. McElroy opened the season against a Virginia Tech team while Jefferson and the Tigers have only fallen once, 13-3 to the Gators.
“You have to manage the game,” Jefferson said. “It’s in your hands. Against Florida, we didn’t have the ball too much. We have to get the momentum early in the game. We have to stay on the field more. There are not going to be many possessions for the offense.”
They also have to take advantage of their weapons. McElroy has tailback Mark Ingram, receivers Julio Jones and Marquis Maze, and tight end Colin Peek.
Jefferson counters with receivers Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver, and his own physical but so far inconsistent runner, Charles Scott.
LSU coach Les Miles makes it clear his quarterbacks are judged by more than passing numbers.
“The role within our program is one where he takes it to the field with the opportunity to make plays that allow our football team to win,” Miles said. “He gets the ball to the playmakers, those guys being receivers, running backs and tight ends, and to do so without error, without mistake and facilitate our offense.
“(Jefferson) is getting better at it every week, and we enjoy what he’s brought to the table thus far this year.”
McElroy and Jefferson both get some help taking snaps, too. Ingram fills the Wildcat role for the Tide, though he hasn’t thrown a pass, while LSU changes pace with freshman quarterback Russell Shephard.
He’s run for 225 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown two weeks ago against Auburn that essentially put the game away, and has caught two passes. He hasn’t thrown one yet, though.
“You’ve got to get him in a hole that he can run through, and I just think it’s a comfort that’s coming to him,” Miles said, “knowing that his number is going to be called, and he’s going to be in the game.”
And about Jefferson?
“He has to do the things that we’ve asked him to do,” Miles said. “He’s got to make quality decisions with the ball. He has to make the checks and get the ball to the receivers, tight ends and running backs as directed, and he just has to play within the scheme of the offense. If he does that, he’ll do fine. He’s a very talented man.”
McElroy had a solid game against Tennessee throwing mostly short passes. His longest throw over the last four games was 27 yards, and he has just two touchdown passes during that span.
“A lot of people try to say, ‘OK, why is the passing game messing up? Is it because of drops, is it because of an inaccurate quarterback, why is it?’” McElroy said. “There’s not always a reason for it. Sometimes you just have off days.
“Sometimes you play a great defense, too.”
Tide coach Nick Saban said it starts with pass protection and noted that McElroy hasn’t had as much time to throw the past few games.