ATLANTA (AP)—“Sweet Home Alabama” blared from the speakers at the Georgia Dome.
The Crimson Tide felt right at home.
Getting off to another rousing start in Atlanta, No. 5 Alabama overcame a 98-yard kickoff return, costly turnovers and silly penalties to wear down No. 7 Virginia Tech for a 34-24 victory Saturday night.
Mark Ingram rushed for a career-high 150 yards and finished off Virginia Tech with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Greg McElroy threw for 230 yards in his debut as Alabama’s starting quarterback, taking quite a beating but standing tall at the end.
The Crimson Tide began a national title run in Atlanta last season by thumping Clemson, and this sure looks like a team that will be in the thick of things again this year. Alabama held a 498-155 edge in total yards, even though it had to rally in the final quarter.
“We actually played better than the score is. We made a lot of mistakes,” said Nick Saban, beginning his third year as coach. “But we responded better to adversity than maybe we ever have.”
Saban wouldn’t mind starting off every year at the Georgia Dome, playing on a neutral field in a bowl-like atmosphere. The Tide opened last season with a 34-10 rout of favored Clemson, sparking a 12-0 start that took Alabama to No. 1 in the rankings before a loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game ended any national title hopes.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer saw nothing to indicate the Tide will slip back in the pack this year.
“They’ve got the defense. They’ve got veteran kickers. Their quarterback played well for them tonight. Their running back played well. They got some great receivers,” Beamer said. “They’ve got it. We played one of the great teams in the country and just didn’t play well enough to match ‘em.”
Ingram put Alabama ahead to stay with a 6-yard touchdown run, set up by McElroy’s 48-yard pass to Marquis Maze. McElroy was 15-of-30, a perfect complement to Saban’s always-punishing ground game. Roy Upchurch rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown as the Tide finished with 268 yards on the ground.
Virginia Tech hung around following the mantra of Beamer Ball, which calls for all three phases of the game to contribute to the scoring. Dyrell Roberts had the special teams touchdown. An interception led to a field goal. Three costly Alabama penalties handed the Hokies another TD, and a long kickoff return and personal foul set up a late TD that gave the Hokies a chance. The Tide squandered another scoring chance when Upchurch was stripped of the ball after a run deep into Virginia Tech territory.
“We kept punching them,” Saban moaned. “But we were also punching ourselves.”
Even so, Alabama would not be denied. After Ryan Williams’ spectacular 32-yard touchdown run made it 27-24—he was given the score after a replay showed he stayed inbounds long enough to stick the ball inside the pylon while flying through the air face up—the Tide calmly responded with a lightning-quick 74-yard drive to clinch it with a McElroy-to-Ingram 18-yard touchdown.
“Everyone talks about our defense, but our offense can do it too,” Ingram said. “We just want to prove that to people.”
McElroy got off to a shaky start. Alabama took some of the pressure off its new starter by going frequently to the Wildcat formation, with Ingram taking the direct snaps. As the game went on, McElroy looked more and more like a worthy successor to three-year starter John Parker Wilson.
“At halftime, Shaun Alexander pulled me aside and told me to take it easy, that it will come to me,” McElroy said, referring to the former Alabama star who was on hand to deliver a ceremonial game ball during the pregame festivities. “He knows about as much about it as anybody.”
Virginia Tech came into this season hoping to do more than just repeat as Atlantic Coast Conference champions—the Hokies think this might be the group that can contend for its first national title.
One loss doesn’t doom those chances, especially this early in the season. But Virginia Tech clearly has some work to do on offense. And its defense took an uncharacteristic beating, too.
Taylor, who shared playing time with Sean Glennon the last two years, was only 9 of 20 for 91 yards passing and didn’t show much of the running ability that had been his hallmark. Williams, taking over after star running back Darren Evans went down with a season-ending knee injury during the preseason, rushed for 71 yards.
“We can get there,” Beamer said. “We’re just a little bit too young right now, but we’re going to be a little bit older next week.”
Leigh Tiffin kicked four field goals for the Tide. After the second one, Roberts took the ensuing kickoff at the 2, burst through a seem, exploded down the left sideline and shook off Marquis Johnson’s futile attempt to force him out off bounds with a stiff arm at the 10. It was the 121st touchdown scored by the defense or special teams in Beamer’s 23 years as head coach.
Alabama regained the lead in first half but gave it right back with a series of sloppy plays that are most unlike a Saban-coached team. On the kickoff return, Tyrone King was penalized 15 yards for dragging down Roberts by the facemask. Taylor threw three straight incompletions, but Johnson was called for pass interference of the last of those throws to keep the drive going.
On the next play, Williams slipped past a blown coverage and was all alone when Taylor hit him with a 43-yard pass. Taylor’s errant pitch resulted in a 14-yard loss, but it didn’t matter when Alabama star Rolando McClain doled out an unnecessary shot on a Virginia Tech player at the goal line.
McClain drew a personal foul, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was tacked on when he bumped one of the officials stepping in. Williams scored on a 1-yard run to make it 17-16.