Tide returning to power football?

After leading a Bama rushing attack that ran over and through Southern Miss last week to the tune of 243 yards, Justin Smiley expressed what was on the minds of a lot of Tide fans. <br><br>"It was nice to get back to the football we played last year," Smiley said.

Justin Smiley was talking about a commitment to running the football. Last Saturday it was no secret that Alabama wanted to protect first-time starting quarterback Brandon Avalos, and the best way to do that was by emphasizing the rush game. Of course Bama wasn't fooling anybody, and the Golden Eagles responded by stacking the line of scrimmage with eight, nine and even ten men in the box.

But their efforts were to no avail. "Saturday we got back to knocking people off the ball like we did last year," Smiley said. "As evidence we had 243 yards rushing, which was pretty sweet. Our game plan was to run the ball."

In practice leading up to last week's game Tide Head Coach Mike Shula told Smiley and his line mates that the contest would be on their backs. Alabama intended to follow its "Big Uglies" up front to victory.

Having worked the previous two seasons at Washington State, this is Bobby Connelly's first year coaching for the Tide.

It was a message the unit was happy to get. "We said that to the offensive linemen, and their eyes got real big," Shula recalled.

Line Coach Bobby Connelly saw to it that Shula's challenge was heard loud and clear. "It was a situation where we had our No. 3 quarterback in the game, and it was time to challenge those guys up front," Connelly said. "We challenged them to get their pad level down, get off the ball and finish their blocks. The goal was simple. Control the line of scrimmage, keep time of possession in our favor and try to keep our defense off the field."

"They challenged us," offensive tackle Evan Mathis agreed. "We knew we were going to run the ball a lot with Brandon at quarterback. We knew we were going to emphasize the running game, and the offensive line likes to carry the load."

Bama's big men up front enjoyed a bulk advantage over their USM opponents. But the Golden Eagles countered by walking up their linebackers and safeties, seeking to outnumber the Tide blockers.

"We thought we matched up well," Connelly recalled. "They put more guys in the box than we could block. So we used a lot of track-blocking schemes and zone-blocking schemes to handle their variation of fronts."

Schemes are important, but as Mathis pointed out, football players win games. "Just lower your shoulders and go at it. Everybody make your blocks, and that's what happened. Southern Miss was putting their whole team in the box, but we all blocked our guy. And if there was one defender free, then our back made him miss and made a big play."

Using his blockers effectively all game, tailback Shaud Williams made most of those plays. Running behind Bama's determined blockers, Williams totaled 170 yards and two rushing touchdowns. "Those guys, Smiley, Wesley, Big Dennis, Evan, those guys like (power football)," Williams said. "They take pride in doing that. If it was up to those guys, we'd run the ball 60 times a game. They love it."

"When they get it set in their heads that they're going to get on some people and go block, that makes it easy for a running back," Williams continued. "They came out Saturday wanting to run block, playing with intensity. It definitely made a difference in the game, playing with intensity and emotion."

What happened was hardly a surprise. In college football talent combined with determined effort will win the battle every time.

Bama's rushing leader, Shaud Williams says the Bama O-Linemen love to play smash-mouth football. (Barry Fikes photo)

Shula summed it up. "Our offensive linemen take a lot of pride in being able to run the ball."

It's a pride based on recent history. Two years ago Alabama averaged 226.4 yards per game and led the SEC in rushing. Last season's 213-yard mark ranked the Tide second in conference and 18th nationally. As former Tide Head Coach Gene Stallings likes to say, football isn't that complicated. If a team can run the ball on offense and conversely stop the run on defense, then more often than not it will win.

Despite returning three starters, including two pre-season All Americas, this year's offensive line has not enjoyed the same level success. Seven games into the 2003 season, Alabama is only averaging 168 yards on the ground per contest, ranking Bama fifth in the league behind Arkansas, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Auburn.

Obviously guard Marico Portis and center Alonzo Ephraim are missed. Both were senior starters last year, garnering post-season All-SEC honors. And both now earn a paycheck in the NFL.

But Smiley, Mathis and tackle Wesley Britt return as three-year starters, and guard Dennis Alexander also has starting experience, prompting fans to wonder. Did last spring's widely-publicized emphasis on pass blocking and related techniques cause Bama's blockers to lose their edge?

"We've had a lot of critics, claiming we're not the same line we were," Smiley commented. "But that's the nature of this offense. We don't come off the ball like we used to.

"(Saturday) we started coming off the football like last year, running power football, old-school stuff. It helped us get the win."

Shula saw it, too. "They got stronger as the game went on. The longer we were on the field, some of the Southern Miss players that were making tackles earlier weren't making the same tackles. We wore them down."

Earlier last week Smiley said publicly what many Tide fans were already saying in private. The strength of this year's offense is power football.

Mathis agrees, "In football as an offensive lineman it's great to know that it's up to you. There are five of us, and the way we practice we knew we could produce."

As Coach Connelly noted, Smiley and his linemates clearly relished their chance to play smash-mouth football. "Come off the ball and take care of business," was how Smiley described it. "Come off the ball, pull the guards to lead block, get in front of people. It was nice.

Obviously technique is important, but Bama's offensive line excels at firing off the line and mauling people. (Kent Gidley photo)

"Nobody likes to sit back and be passive. (Power blocking) is the nature of this offensive line. That's what we're good at. It was nice to get back to it."

Now that Shula, Connelly and the rest of the Tide staff have first-hand proof, it'll be interesting to see if there are any changes in Bama's offensive personality for the remainder of the season.

"Those kids are tough," Connelly acknowledged. "Saturday they fought their tails off. They met their challenge."

As for Smiley and his fellow linemen, there is no doubt.

"It's an offense we can win with, definitely," he said. "We beat Tennessee last year running the football, and we definitely beat Ole Miss that way. We've just got to get back to it.

"If we get to executing every block, then it'll be an offensive explosion. I just hope we can do that soon, because we've got big games coming up."

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