Thanksgiving during college for former Alabama and current New York Jets quarterback Greg McElroy was always a bit stressful with the Texas born and raised McElroy away from home during the holidays. Often, he’d spend Thanksgiving with the family of a teammate, sometimes just a day or two before the deepest and most hated rivalry in college football – the Iron Bowl pitting Alabama and Auburn.
Pass the mashed potatoes and leave the “War Eagle” out of it.
“I think that’s the worst part about it. It’s Thanksgiving week and being away from home, you’d spend the day at the home of a teammate along with maybe some other guys on the team. You’re going to have dinner and relax a little bit and you’ve got the ‘Bama side of the family, but also the Auburn side – and that’s what they’re talking about, the game,” McElroy said. “You just can’t escape it, even on Thanksgiving Day.”
This Saturday will be meeting No. 76 between the two teams and it could well determine whether the Crimson Tide will play in the BCS National Championship Game. The game divides the state, with a win by either team often times enough to offset a poor season. Families are split, hateful words fill talk radio and the passion often spills over into the stands.
McEolry called it “the best rivalry in college football” and though he might be biased a tad, it is intense. None more so for McElroy than in the 2009 edition with Auburn holding a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Crimson Tide entered the game 11-0 and No. 2 in the nation, but now 79 yards and a tough Tigers defense stood between them and a shot at a perfect regular season. Midway through the fourth quarter, McElroy took over deep in his own end, and systematically moved the ball down the field for first and goal at the nine-yard line.
Head coach Nick Saban called running plays on the first two downs to eat up the clock and it seemed likely that his team would go to the ground again on third down to set-up for a field goal attempt. Instead, with 1:29 left in the game, Saban went a different route as he ran onto the field to call a timeout.
Saban had a plan and it was called Near I Left Peter Pass Corner X. Terrence Cody was the fullback, Roy Upchurch lined up as setback in the I-formation and Trent Richardson the half back. Everything looked like run to the Auburn defense.
“We saw some things on tape that made us think we could get away with something a bit unorthodox down around the goal line. We had talked about it during the week and it was nice to have it in our back pocket. Coach Saban said to us during the timeout ‘What’s that pass play we have down here?” McElroy said. “We faked a running play to the right, opposite of our tendency when Cody was in the game - we’d usually run left and follow his block. Instead, we faked it to the right and hit Upchurch for the touchdown.”
McElroy said he was terrified before the play. Moments later, he’d be on the field celebrating a 26-21 win and the nerves a distant memory. The clutch play propelled the Crimson Tide. Next week they beat Florida in the SEC Championship Game and then in early January, won the national championship in the Rose Bowl.
“I was shaking almost. I had excitement and nerves all at the same time,” McElroy said. “Usually that late in the game, you just go out there, but we had that TV timeout so we’re sitting there for two and a half minutes just thinking about it. It made me really nervous, but at the end of the day, it worked out for us.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.