TUSCALOOSA _ For University of Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, it was the wake-up call.
When South Carolina visited for homecoming last October, he completed just 10 of 20 passes for 92 yards and a career-high two interceptions. The longest pass was 22 yards, with most of the work on the play done by running back Mark Ingram, who also finished with 246 rushing yards to carry the Crimson Tide. The entire corps of wide receivers had just two catches for 19 yards, both by Marquis Maze.
"We shot ourselves in the foot a bunch today, had three turnovers in the first quarter," Nick Saban said after the game.
The thing was, going in the Crimson Tide's passing game appeared to be flying high, with no one hotter than McElroy. Since halftime of the season opener against No. 7 Virginia Tech he had completed 88 of 135 passes for 1,139 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions, with a 65.2 completion percentage and 158.06 passer rating over those 22 quarters. His streak of 141 passes without a pickoff ranked third in Alabama history behind Brodie Croyle (190) and Jay Barker (155).
However, that's also where it ended. McElroy's first attempt against South Carolina, on third-and-8 from his own 40, ended up in the hands of middle linebacker Shaq Wilson.
"I just learned a lot about myself in the fact that last year I played with a lot of false confidence," McElroy said. "Up until the South Carolina game I wasn't sure what I was capable of. I had had success, but a lot of that success was, I wouldn't say lucky, but it was fortunate. I had a lot of good things happen to me the first five or six games, but the South Carolina game really opened my eyes that I if don't go out and really prepare and understand and handle myself in the right way I'm not going to have success at this level.
"So I really tried to turn the corner, and I know my statistics weren't the best against Tennessee, but I played pretty well in that game from a check standpoint, a decision-making standpoint, and then I tried to carry it over to the other games."
Of course, McElroy went to lead the late rally against Auburn, was named MVP of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Florida and won the national title. As every Alabama fan knows, he still hasn't lost a game since eighth grade.
But if there's one area of concern regarding the offense the past couple of weeks it's that Alabama hasn't had a single big passing play. Although a lot of that has to do with playing No. 10 Arkansas and No. 7 Florida along with the situations the offense faced, the two longest completions were 20-yard passes against the Razorbacks: a screen pass that sophomore running back Trent Richardson turned into a touchdown, and a ball thrown to Ingram.
During the first three games of the season the passing game alone was averaging nearly five big plays (21 yards or more) and seven explosive plays (17 or more). The drop-off was also reflected in the yards after catch which went from 132, 144 and 153 to 117 and 67, respectively.
"We want to make explosive plays," Saban said. "Florida played a lot of man-to-man in the game and we didn't separate well all the time and when we did separate we didn't make the throws. We probably need to stretch the field vertically a little bit more and continue to try to make big plays down field. We have some people who can do that and I think that's something that is important, but when we tried a couple in the last game they were covered, so we need to do a better job in separating.
"I think sometimes we get a little impatient and you can't do that when people are playing close coverage. You usually beat them, not down the field, but at the line or out of the break and you have to have a lot of patience and confidence to try to do that. I think our guys are playing with confidence, but sometimes I think when they get in close coverage they get a little impatient."
Although No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC) jumped out to a huge lead then only executed four snaps in the third quarter, Florida's priority was to stop the running game in part by playing a 5-2 defensive front with an extra man on the line. The Gators may have stacked the middle with more than 900 pounds among three players, but the Tide still pounded away between the tackles.
Considering the way Ingram torched South Carolina last year, and two weeks ago Auburn had two 100-yard rushers en route to 334 yards on the ground against the Gamecocks, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see a similar approach to try and make McElroy beat them - especially with junior Julio Jones limited by a bruised knee.
It's considered nowhere near as severe as last year's injury when the wide receiver was sidelined by a helmet hit and then had a problems with dropped balls. He has three of Alabama's six this season, but leads the team with 24 catches for 322 yards (196 after the catch) and may be even better as a downfield blocker.
Meanwhile, McElroy's completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 983 yards and seven touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking 11th nationally in pass efficiency (166.67). He's connected with 13 different teammates although a good portion of the non-starters haven't notched anything of late (Kevin Norwood hasn't had a reception since his somersault into the end zone against Penn State, while Brandon Gibson and Earl Alexander haven't had a catch since Duke).
"We have to go out and execute," junior wide receiver Darius Hanks said. "They're going to try and stop the run, so the pass game has to open up."
It should also be noted that while the offense has the reputation of grinding out long drives, with the SEC's longest possession in terms of time (8:15 vs. Arkansas) and is tied for the lead in plays (16 vs. Arkansas) and yards (97 Penn State), it's also struck quickly with 15 scoring drives lasting less than three minutes, and nine under 90 seconds.
"The great thing up to this point is that we've been very proficient in the passing game and completed a high percentage of passes," McElroy said. "It's such a point of emphasis"