Still battling

Late last Saturday night, the interview room below Sanford Stadium had almost completely cleared, save University of Alabama sophomore cornerback Charlie Peprah and a couple of straggling, lingering reporters trying to fill their tape recorders with interesting, meaningful quotes following the Tide's 37-23 whipping at the hands of Georgia.

Around Peprah, Alabama officials and media-relations types were wrapping up interviews, rounding up players for the evening's quiet bus trip back to Tuscaloosa that was about to begin.

As this happened, the reporters quizzed Peprah on Alabama's breaking point. This was the Tide's third consecutive loss, one that had left No.1 and No.2 quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Spencer Pennington hobbled with injured shoulders.

Although Alabama finished the game down just two scores to the Bulldogs, only those who saw the score flash by them on America's scoreboards actually thought it was that close. The Tide was down 37-10 at halftime and wound up with redshirt freshman Brandon Avalos as its quarterback, which might carry over to this week against Southern Miss.

So naturally, the scribes asked Peprah, in so many words, if Alabama had any fight left. His answer, of course, was an unequivocal yes.

"(Alabama defensive coordinator Joe) Kines said that in this game, you're going to find out who you are," Peprah recalled. "He said sometimes it takes five years to find it out in college.' But he said, 'Today, you're going to find out who you are.'

Shown intercepting a pass versus Georgia last year, Charlie Peprah doesn't believe there's any quit in this year's squad. (AP photo)

"We saw people fighting. Nobody was hanging their heads saying, 'Damn, let's get out of here.' Nobody was playing just to finish this game up. People were playing to come back and win, all the way to the end."

Peprah's message was simple: the Tide hasn't given up -- yet.

But the past three weeks have certainly tested what has become a very battered team psyche. With a 2-4 record and a difficult slate remaining, the question might not be if the breaking point is reached, but when.

The recent losing streak and a veritable injury epidemic have created Alabama's most vulnerable squad since the infamous 2000 team, also known as the Mike DuBose Experience.

Of course, this crew and that group have one major difference. The 2000 team -- which began the season ranked as high as third nationally following an SEC title -- was supposed to be good.

This group, which began the season with its third coach in 10 months -- had low expectations placed on it from the start.

Shula and his coaching staff had only a month to install their offense before the opener with South Florida, a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.

For those who have forgotten, Dennis Franchione's first Alabama team struggled offensively for the better part of eight games before finishing the 2001 season on a four-game winning streak, which clinched a 7-5 record.

And Franchione had an entire spring practice to implement his schemes, and a preseason camp to polish them.

Thanks to Mike Price's infamous trip to Pensacola, Shula had 29 practices before the real tests began.

His first season has been marked by a difficult schedule -- the four teams that have beaten Alabama are a combined 20-1 -- and, of course, enough injuries to fill a "very special" episode of E.R, and plenty left over for Scrubs.

Saturday would have been a perfect time for a roll-over; a white-flag day if ever there was one. By halftime it was 37-10, and it looked like it could get much worse before the final horn sounded.

But as Peprah so aptly points out, Alabama never quit fighting.

"It wasn't like, 'What else can go wrong, you might as well lay down and tell Coach to forfeit,'" he said of the first half. "It was like, 'We've got to stop the bleeding.' We were hoping we could make it to halftime without bleeding too much."

To their credit, the Tide players outscored Georgia 13-0 in the second half. Too little too late, but it was definitely noticed.

Can such mettle under extreme circumstances continue? No one knows for sure.

BamaMag.com is pleased to feature regular columns from Greg Wallace, one of the most talented writers on the Bama beat.

An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

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A loss to Southern Miss Saturday might send Alabama over the edge. Trips to Ole Miss and Auburn, as well as visits from LSU and Tennessee, remain without a guaranteed victory among them.

This group has endured so much -- including a serious NCAA probation, Franchione's departure and Price's firing before coaching a single regular-season game. Eventually, the stress might build up into something more serious.

It might crack a player here, a player there, and break team spirit.

If that happens, all bets are off regarding the rest of the season.

Peprah -- who joined the program in fall 2001 -- has talked to veterans that endured the humiliation of 2000. He says the breaking point won't happen. This crew, he says, is just too strong.

"From what I hear, they didn't have the character that we do now," he said. "That definitely won't happen."

But if it did, who could blame them?


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