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November 4, 2009
Passing game not up to grade A
TUSCALOOSA _ The number is 86.
That's how many passes University of Alabama junior quarterback Greg McElroy has attempted since his last touchdown, a 7-yard toss to Darius Hanks in the third quarter against Kentucky on Oct. 3.
That's more than a month, 44 completions and 200-plus plays ago, even though during his last outing the only incompletion in the second half against Tennessee was a ball thrown away.
Yeah, it's been a while, although McElroy appears to have regained some of the confidence that wavered during the recent stretch of five consecutive victories against Southeastern Conference opponents, when the speed of the defenses caused him some problems.
"We had a good game against Tennessee," he said. "The statistics don't really speak for themselves. As far as execution of the passing game, we really did a good job. We took what the defense gave us. They're a bend-not-break team.
"I was really pleased with my performance. Although you only throw for however many yards, it doesn't matter. We moved the ball and we didn't turn it over in the passing game."
Overall, McElroy was 18 of 29 for 120 yards against the Volunteers, with his longest completion just 19 yards as Alabama successfully avoided All-American safety Eric Berry and took a two-score lead into the final minutes.
Yet that's still a far cry from his first four games when McElroy averaged 234.5 passing yards, set the school record for consecutive completions (14 vs. Florida International) and tied the mark for highest completion percentage with a minimum of 10 completions (13 for 15, 86.7 percent against North Texas), and had his name mentioned for possible Heisman Trophy consideration.
"It can get to you, and I think it might have a little bit with me," he said about the hype. "People build you up to break you down. I've experienced that a little bit this year. It's unfortunate. I've experienced what goes on in the film room. I know what goes on, what the coaches are saying to me. I feel strongly about the performance I had against Tennessee."
Getting that confidence back was obviously step one, and seen in areas like his footwork, but even Nick Saban said after the narrow 12-10 victory over the Vols that the Tide needed to be more aggressive and attack downfield.
That will be especially true against No. 9 LSU on Saturday, an opponent the Tide threw for 215 yards in last year's dramatic overtime victory.
"I think that our passing game needs to improve," Saban said. "I think that it starts with the protection. I think that in the last few weeks we've gotten a little more pressure than what we got earlier in the season. LSU obviously has some very good pass rushers, number 84 (Rahim Alem) being one that is a pretty significant guy on the edge. I think that if we are going to improve in the passing game that every part of that needs to improve.
"Everything needs to improve and it certainly starts up front because that's what I think can affect the quarterback the most, in terms of him feeling like he has the time to make good choices and decisions in the passing game and getting the ball to the right place."
Overall, McElroy has completed 60.0 percent (121 of 202) of his passes for 1,445 yards and nine touchdowns with only three interceptions. His 131.72 efficiency rating ranks sixth in the SEC, 53rd nationally.
But statistically there are two causes for concern:
1. Third downs
After the fourth week of the season Alabama ranked third in the SEC in passing offense (256.2), third in total offense (490.5), and third in third downs (44.6 percent).
It's now eighth in passing offense (192.4), four in total offense (410.0), and seventh in third-down conversions.
In passing efficiency, the Tide dropped from second (169.1) to fifth (131.5).
2. Red zone
The good news is that Alabama is only second to Florida in red-zone appearances (inside the 20) by one, 38 to 37, and that senior kicker Leigh Tiffin leads the conference in scoring by a wide margin by averaging 10.5 points per game.
That's because of those 37 trips, Alabama has scored 32 times (86.5), but only half of those have been touchdowns.
It leads to this alarming statistic: The teams with the worst touchdown percentage in the red zone are Vanderbilt (.4), Alabama (.43) and Florida (.44). The best teams are Ole Miss (.75) and Kentucky (.70).
For the season, McElroy is 8-for-31 inside the 20.
"I think the stress and the pressure of the red zone and things like that can get to people and lead a little bit to poor execution," McElroy said. "Plays are there to be made in the red zone, we just haven't made them, in the running game and the passing game. We're just a hair off. We were hitting those earlier in the year."
Factors suddenly in McElroy's favor are having last week off and a healthy Julio Jones again (although senior tight end Colin Peek's status is still in question due to a knee sprain), but when it comes down to it there's only one number he truly cares about, which will be tested every game the rest of the season.
Alabama is still undefeated at 8-0 (5-0 SEC), and can clinch the Western Division title with a victory against the Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium.