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December 7, 2009

Upon Further Review: SEC Championship

After he took the knee on the final play of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, University of Alabama junior quarterback Greg McElroy had to give the referee the game ball, but then stood and waited for time to run out so he could have it back.

McElroy held on to it through the postgame celebration, finding family members in the stands at the Georgia Dome and though the awards presentation when he was handed with the most valuable player trophy. He finally stashed it in his locker before being ushered off to do the press conference and interviews.

"If someone took it I'm going to be pretty upset," he said on his way back to rejoin teammates after the 32-13 victory.

Like McElroy with the ball, that's how much Alabama wanted to beat Florida on Saturday, and did so in every aspect. For the most part, it was total domination and it'll be a long time before anyone lets go of the feeling.

"While we were excited about what we accomplished last year as a team, I also think we learned a lot about resiliency and critical lessons in life about the intangibles it takes not to be denied, and actually used -- I told Tim (Tebow) this standing outside -- some of the characteristics he has, in terms of what he did for his team last year in the game, in terms of being a phenomenal competitor, as an example to our guys relative to how everybody had to buy in not to be denied in this game, but that was an intangible that would make the difference in the game," Coach Nick Saban said.

"To be a champion, that's what you would have to do, and the players trusted in the plan. Did a great job of going out and executing it, showed great mental resolve, played with a lot of physical toughness and I have never been prouder of a group of players or the people in our organization.

"I'm talking about the coaches, everybody in our organization who helped prepare the players for this. It's a fantastic win against a great football team and a very well coached team, and I've never been prouder of a group of players for what their accomplishment was in this game tonight."

When he arrived nearly three years ago, Saban immediately made it clear to everyone that the program's goal was to be champions.

Now they are.

Here are the awards, with some bonus categories thrown in:

Player of the game: Just about everyone was deserving, but McElroy completed 12 of 18 passes for 239 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. That's 13.3 yards per attempt (19.9 per completion) for a very impressive passer rating of 196.53.

Play of the game: Sophomore running back Mark Ingram's 69-yard screen reception in the second quarter was Alabama's answer to Florida's answer after the Tide took a 12-3 lead. The Gators scored only three points after that point.

Statistic of the game: Alabama converted 11 of 15 third-down opportunities for 73.3 percent. Coming in, it was averaging 37.7 percent, which ranked ninth in the SEC. After the game the Tide ranked third.

Hit of the game: On the opening kickoff, sophomore Julio Jones burst through the line and flattened one Florida player, hit a second and kept going.

Block of the game: McElroy helped freshman running back Trent Richardson turn what should have been no gain into positive yards by using his body to take out a linebacker.

Tackle of the game: Senior punter P.J. Fitzgerald might have prevented a touchdown when he brought down Brandon James early in the second quarter, and got style points as well for the open-field tackle that would have been impressive for a linebacker.

Near-sack of the game: Senior defensive end Lorenzo Washington was essentially double-teamed but still made a textbook blindside hit on Tebow that was initially called a fumble, recovered by senior linebacker Cory Reamer, only to be overturned by instant replay and ruled an incomplete pass. The call was very, very close and probably could have gone either way.

Did you notice? Excluding the end of the first half, when Alabama ran out the final 1:18, the Tide scored on six of its first seven possessions.

Here are 10 other notable things from Saturday's game:

1. The third quarter: Alabama took the game over in the third quarter when it scored a touchdown and set up another with most of the 17-play drive that last 8:47 and carried over into the fourth quarter. Florida had offensive eight snaps, gaining just 21 yards, which was nearly matched by its two penalties for 20 yards. Meanwhile, the Tide had the ball for 10:24 and notched nine first downs thanks to 77 rushing yards on 14 carries and 55 passing yards.

2. Florida's running game: Coming into the game, Florida averaged 225.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked 10th in the nation. The Gators came out throwing and handed off to a running back just four times for 27 yards. Florida still averaged 6.3 yards per carry, but completely abandoned the run in the second half when it had just 13 yards, with the last handoff coming on the second play of the third quarter. Officials appeared to miss a call when sophomore running back Chris Rainey wasn't set for a full second on his 9-yard run when he quickly shifted from behind Tebow to his right side right before the snap. Another 9-yard gain was essentially nullified by a holding penalty.

3. Third downs: This was supposed a huge Florida advantage and when Tebow is usually at his best. He completed 6-of-10 passes, but only the first two attempts were converted to first downs. Overall, the Gators converted just 4 of 11 opportunities (36.3 percent), which kept Florida atop the SEC at 49.1 percent for the season (81 of 165). McElroy attempted only four passes on third downs, completing three with one dropped. All three completions were for first downs, including the 34-yard sideline pass to sophomore Marquis Maze, and Alabama scored touchdowns on all three possessions. In last year's SEC Championship, Alabama was 5-for-12 (41.7 percent), and Florida went 7-for-13 (54.8).

4. Ingram and Co.: Florida was so concerned with Alabama's running game that it pretty much abandoned its 3-3-5 preferred approach and kept four down linemen for the entire game. However, that didn't deter the Tide at all, which mostly ran Ingram up the gut. His longest gain, 25 yards, was around the left end early on, but of his 113 rushing yards 79 were by either from pounding it up the middle or behind redshirt freshman guard Barrett Jones. Richardson's 80 yards on 11 attempts were almost exclusively between center and the left tackle, with one carry around the right end for five yards. Unlike the games leading up to Saturday, Roy Upchurch in the backfield didn't mean a pass to him. He didn't have a catch but seven carries for 57 yards. Alabama ran one play out of the wildcat, probably just to show another look, which Florida sees every day in practice. So the Tide had 272 rushing yards overall, minus 21 between a sack, the wildcat, a run to the left, a botched play and taking a knee twice.

5. The passing game: The play-action gave Florida problems and Alabama kept attacking over the middle to beat Florida's zone. On McElroy's six incompletions, two were drops (and possibly a third on a ball thrown behind Julio Jones), he threw one away, one looked like it may have been pass interference although Jones unnecessarily slowed down when he misjudged the ball, he was flushed on one and the other play was good defense by the Gators' secondary. McElroy looked the most to Julio Jones, completing just 2 of 6 passes for 28 yards, but was almost perfect to everyone else. Alabama's receivers had 122 yards after the catch, more than 10 yards each completion. Alabama kept lining junior tight end Preston Dial wide, possibly to set up a quick screen to the inside receiver, but never went to it.

6. Offensive line: Alabama finished with 251 rushing yards, the most allowed by Florida during the Urban Meyer era, and finished with 490 total yards. Florida had one sack, when the scheme confused junior left guard James Carpenter, and the Gators were credited with four hurries -- two by senior linebacker Brandon Spikes. Senior guard Mike Johnson made an impressive block on the first touchdown, and out in front of Ingram on his screen, which benefitted from the perfectly timed call against a cornerback blitz were senior tight end Colin Peek, Barrett Jones, Julio Jones and sophomore center William Vlachos.

7. Special teams: Television cameras couldn't keep junior Chas Henry's impressive punts in the frame because they were so high, and he averaged 48.8 yards per punt to effectively nullify senior returner Javier Arenas. On kick returns, though, he averaged 32 yards on three returns. On one he dropped his shoulder on Ahmad Black at the Alabama 24 and didn't go down until the 32, and Black might have gotten away with an illegal tackle. The kick-coverage unit played with a vengeance and limited the Gators to just 28 yards per return. The big difference during past couple of weeks is the coaching staff switched up some of the lane assignments. Sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw was back on kick coverage and as expected senior Baron Huber was on kick returns instead of Reamer, who was coming off a hamstring injury.

8. Who was thrown at: The Tide played a lot of zone, but for the second straight year the Gators tired to go after junior cornerback Kareem Jackson. Five passes were thrown his direction, with one completion for six yards. Senior Marquis Johnson also had an outstanding game, with four balls thrown his way resulting in one catch for three yards. Florida's greatest success came by getting someone alone on Reamer in zone coverage, like the 59-yard gain to set up the Gators' only touchdown. Sophomore Mark Barron was in coverage on two of Florida's biggest gains, including David Nelson out-jumping him for a 22-yard catch and Aaron Hernandez's 38-yard reception. Give a lot of credit to the front seven, which was instrumental in the Tide tallying a whopping 14 hurries, led by linebackers Rolando McClain and Eryk Anders, both with three while sophomore end Marcell Dareus had two.

9. Red Zone: Amazingly, the Tide attempted only one pass in the red zone, Peek's impressive over-the-left-shoulder touchdown catch, which Saban described as an "Oh s---"Ěpass earlier in the season because that's what coaches say when they see the tight end make a quick block and then break across the middle into open space. Alabama had six red-zone possessions and scored on five, including four touchdowns. Florida was 1-for-3 inside the 20, resulting in just a field goal, and Arenas made the backbreaking interception in the end zone.

10. Penalties: Alabama was called for two illegal formations, one of which was declined. The other it needed another player on the line. Florida was flagged five times for 51 yards.


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