It had been almost 20 years since Shula had last walked the Bryant-Denny turf on game day. Back in 1986 he led the Tide to a 24-14 win over Temple. But back then Legion Field was still Bama's designated home field for big games.
Things have definitely changed.
"I thought about how nice it was going to be," Shula related. "But Saturday surpassed my imagination tremendously."
With their beloved Tide facing the nation's top-ranked team on national television, Alabama's fans came through big time. "A lot of (the excitement) was even before you got into the game," Shula recalled. "With everything being set up on campus--with (ESPN's) GameDay being here--with all the tents on the Quad and the people outside the stadium...
"After the game I had some people tell me--people that have worked football games for 20-25 years--saying that was one of the best crowds they had ever seen."
With packed stands screaming for an upset, the atmosphere was electrifying.
Unfortunately, Alabama came up short. Shula acknowledged his disappointment. "It was disappointing that we didn't play well enough to win against a very, very good Oklahoma team in all three phases of the game. They're well coached. It's disappointing, but we've got to be able to take the good things out of it, the positives, and build on those and correct the things that need to get corrected."
Alabama did a lot of things well, but Shula was most impressed by his athletes. "Our players gave great effort, no doubt about it, which is something we expect week in and week out. We've come far our first couple of weeks."
One sympathetic reporter pointed out that Shula's team stood toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the nation. Wasn't there solace in that?
"Our players don't want to hear that," Shula responded. "Specifically (as coaches) we have to look at particular plays and things that we're doing well. We can build on things like for the second straight week we got behind, yet we hung in there and believed. I don't think there was a player on our sideline that didn't think we were going to win the game, even to the very end. The guys were really into it."
As a team Bama battled the entire game, but Oklahoma did as well. And an extremely talented Sooner squad turned in a near-flawless performance.
Shula commented, "What hurt us a little bit was every time we got back into it and got within a touchdown, Oklahoma did a nice job getting the momentum back. That's a credit to them. We felt like we had some momentum at points, but they took it right away and took the wind out of our sails."
One play illustrates Shula's point. Midway through the third quarter the Tide drove the length of the field for what turned out to be its only touchdown of the day. A 20-yard slant pass from Brodie Croyle to Triandos Luke made the score 13-10. Bama's defense built on the momentum, stopping the Sooner offense and apparently forcing Oklahoma to punt from its own 31. At that point the Tide appeared poised to take the lead.
But a gutsy call by the Sooner staff turned the game around. Executing a perfect fake punt, Oklahoma gained 22 yards and a first down. And on the very next play the Sooner QB plunged a dagger into Bama's heart, in the form of a 47-yard touchdown strike.
Shula commented, "It was surprise execution for sure--at third and 11, when they were backed up. They caught us when we were going for the block, and they made a play. It was obviously a big play in the game."
Alabama played hard, but frankly not as well as it could. "We gave up too much field position as far as our own (kick return men) are concerned," Shula pointed out. "Offensively, we had a couple of mistakes with our blocking schemes. Defensively, we played well then gave up a big play. We'll work on those things."
Oklahoma now behind, it's the job of Alabama's coaches to get the players focused on Saturday's game. Kentucky is up next, in what will be Bama's conference opener. "There are some real good things to look at and be happy about," Shula said. "But it's going to be important to continue improving."
Correct the mistakes, and Shula believes Alabama will be tough down the stretch.
"The last thing I want to do is point a finger at an individual," Shula said. "I look at (correctable mistakes) as a positive. It's important that the players see that from us.
"Our message should be, ‘Hey, look how good we're playing. If we get these things corrected, we've got a chance to win the game against a real good team.'"
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