Alabama's offense has done fairly well gaining yards, but points have been harder to come by. Against Kentucky the Tide rolled for 464 yards, but only scored 27 points. Last week the trend continued with 394 yards of offense producing only 16 points---three points shy of Northern Illinois.
Tide Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader repeatedly made the point that Alabama's offense is "close," but just not quite where it needs to be. Wesley Britt agrees. "(The mistakes) were small things that are correctable, but we've got to fix them."
After sitting down with the Tide coaches and reviewing game film, Britt gave some examples of what he meant. "On one play a (Tide) lineman got his foot stepped on, which allowed his man to get the sack. That's easily fixed by adjusting your stance.
"Another thing we need to do (as offensive linemen) is keep our heads up, so we can spot the blitzer."
After four games the Tide is averaging a good, but not great, 170.25 yards rushing per game. Last Saturday NIU constantly walked its linebackers and safeties up to the line of scrimmage, "run blitzing" the Tide to good effect. Bama finished the disappointing contest with only 118 net yards rushing.
"We started last Sunday (at practice) preparing for run blitzes," Britt said. "We'll get that fixed. We've just got to be prepared to play 60 minutes of football."
One explanation for Bama's recent struggles on offense can be found--or rather not found the last two games--right next to Britt. An injured foot kept All-America guard Justin Smiley on the sideline and out of the Tide lineup versus both Kentucky and Northern Illinois.
"Anytime you lose an All-American from your unit, it's going to hurt," Britt stated matter-of-factly.
Senior Atlas Herrion has filled in during Smiley's absence and has been praised by Bama's coaches for his efforts. But more than any other position in football, offensive linemen need to be comfortable with each other. Britt and Smiley have held down the left side of Alabama's offensive line every game since their redshirt freshmen year, and that kind of comfort level cannot be replicated overnight.
"Justin and I have been playing next to each other for a long time," Britt explained. "We sort of have our own shorthand way of talking--our own language."
A fiery personality on and off the field, Smiley's presence has been missed. "Justin's a good leader," Britt said. "We're all pretty vocal out there, but there's no doubt Justin doesn't like being on the sideline."
Smiley practiced this week, but his foot is still not 100 percent. However, he said Thursday after practice that he would start in Saturday's game.
If Smiley returns healthy and the small mistakes get corrected, Britt likes where his unit is headed. "The sky's the limit for this offensive line," Britt said. "We've got a lot of talent. All of us are competitors. We'll do what it takes to win."
No one doubts Britt's sentiment, but Saturday's showdown contest against the Arkansas Razorbacks will be tough. Two weeks ago the Razorbacks went into Austin, Texas and spanked the then fifth-ranked Longhorns 38-28. Bama's home crowd won't likely intimidate Arkansas.
Though "Best in the West" based on on-the-field competition, NCAA probation prevented the Tide from claiming its rightful spot in the 2002 SEC Championship game. In Bama's absence, the Razorbacks claimed a Western Division "championship," representing the West versus the Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta.
Undefeated and on a roll, Arkansas wants to earn the Western Division title on the field this year.
"This Saturday's game is just huge," Britt said. "We're getting into the heart of our schedule. This will be a great game to bounce back. It's in the SEC, and Arkansas is playing well.
"There are really several reasons why it's big for both Alabama and Arkansas."
Just like last season, Arkansas again enters the game with high expectations. Of course in 2002, Wesley Britt and the Tide offensive line quickly deflated the Razorback balloon.
On national television and in front of a record Arkansas home crowd, Shaud Williams took an early handoff and raced 80 yards for a touchdown. Williams' run to glory silenced the partisan crowd and was a gut punch from which Arkansas never recovered. He and fellow tailback Santonio Beard blitzed the home-team defense for 119 and 134 yards respectively as the Tide scored 17 unanswered points.
From that point on the Razorbacks never really threatened, and Alabama cruised to a 30-12 victory in Fayetteville.
Britt recalls the game with satisfaction, but he notes that the Arkansas players remember it as well. "That run by Shaud really gave us a sense of confidence. But this is a totally different offense this year. I know (the Razorbacks) are going to be gunning for us."