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September 6, 2009ATLANTA _ It was nothing like last year's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, although the potential was certainly there.
For three-plus hours, the University of Alabama football team mostly experienced frustration and angst after numerous mistakes mounted against No. 7-ranked Virginia Tech. Just about everything imaginable occurred during the first three quarters, yet despite holding a sizable advantage statistically across the board the No. 5 Crimson Tide still trailed by one point.
Then, as if someone clicked a switch, it dominated the last 15 minutes to pull out the 34-24 victory.
What a way to start season.
"If we don't kill ourselves, the game isn't close," said former standout running back Shaun Alexander, who was sweating out the game with every other Alabama fan here at the Georgia Dome. "This team is going to do very, very well.
"Any time you have a defense like this you have a shot - and a shot is all you want."
What turned things around was a short stretch at the start of the fourth quarter, starting with a holding penalty by Virginia Tech nullifying a 2-yard carry on third-and-1. Instead, the Hokies punted and on Alabama's subsequent play junior quarterback Greg McElroy executed a play-action and nailed streaking sophomore receiver Marqius Maze down the middle of the field for a 48-yard completion - the kind of play Alabama seemingly never clicked together last year.
"The safeties had been biting on the run the whole game," Maze said. "When the safety came down he was flat-footed so it was up to me to get up over the top. Greg made a great pass."
Sophomore running back Mark Ingram reached the end zone from the 6 on the following snap, and Tech began to deflate. The Hokies were even more stunned when senior Chris Rogers ripped the ball out and recovered the fumble on the following kickoff (resulting in another field goal).
"That changed the entire momentum of the game," McElroy said of the Maze completion.
From then, the Hokies could no longer keep up, or have an answer for either McElroy or Ingram.
Although senior Roy Upchurch had the highlight carry when he ran over a defender while scoring his 19-yard run, and finished with 92 rushing yards on seven carries, Ingram tallied a whopping 150 yards on 26 carries (5.8 average), 64 of which came in the fourth quarter.
"It's been a long time since a guy got that many yards against us," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
Meanwhile, McElroy, who admitting to doubting himself some after Tech's first touchdown (a feeling he called "odd" and not used to), came back to complete 9 of 12 passes in the second half to finish 15-of-30 for 230 yards
"Greg took control of the team," Upchurch said.
"He was a leader for us," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "He stepped in and did a phenomenal job of making plays."
Although Alabama outgained Tech 268 to 64 in rushing, 230 to 91 in passing, and 498 to 155 overall, Tide miscues were the story early on. Special teams gave up a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown, a turnover led to a field goal and botched coverage resulted in Tech's only big offensive play of the first half, a 43-yard completion to unprotected tailback Ryan Williams.
That too led to a touchdown and 17-16 Tech lead after junior linebacker Rolando McClain had a rare lapse of poise and was flagged for a personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct on the same play.
"I was very frustrated, that's not me," McClain said. "We have to learn from our mistakes."
There was a also a fumble by Upchurch at the end of a 33-yard run, a rare dropped pass on third down by sophomore receiver Julio Jones, protection lapses which contributed to McElroy taking a pounding, and to cap the half senior kicker Leigh Tiffin, who made his first three attempts, missed a 36-yard field goal that would have given Alabama the lead.
"It was self-inflicted wounds and mental mistakes," senior tight end Colin Peek said. "When you leave that door open for such a tremendous team, you know you're got to do something about it."
The Tide did, but it took a while, and when Alabama went up 27-17 in the fourth quarter only to see Tech counter, it quickly answered with a five-play, 74-yard drive capped by Ingram scoring another touchdown on a 18-yard completion.
"You have to create six seconds of hell each play and we did that tonight," said Coach Nick Saban, who enjoyed seeing his offense make more big plays, throw down field more and show more explosiveness than last season.
Eventually, that's what the Tide will eventually take away from Saturday night.
"I've never been so happy as I was at the end of the game," McElroy said of winning his first start.