On the road at Oxford, Mississippi, the Tide played its worst first quarter of the year, falling behind to Ole Miss 24-0. "We got off to a bad start, starting with the kickoff," Shula said. "We kicked off out of bounds, which gave them good field position. On our second offensive play we fall down and throw a pass that gets intercepted. Before we know it we're down 10-0 and in a hole already.
"That first quarter was obviously not a good quarter. They score 24 first-quarter points. We move the ball a little bit offensively and helped ourselves, but we couldn't convert on third down."
Obviously things couldn't have gotten much worse, and the Tide did rally somewhat in the second stanza. But again Bama's play was nothing to brag about.
Shula commented, "We had a chance in the second quarter to get it to a two-score game. We had them third and short and felt like if we could get off the field we could cut (the lead) down to seven points. But it worked the other way. They converted and went down and scored and we go in at the half, 31-10."
The loss drops Alabama's overall record to 3-5, just 1-4 in the SEC.
"I was obviously extremely disappointed, but that's something we're going to have to get through and correct," Shula said. "We have to find a way to get better in a hurry against a good Tennessee team coming up this week."
With little left to play for except pride, more than a few players turned in their worst game of the season Saturday. Is there anything Shula can do to keep the team from getting discouraged?
"We've got to make sure we look them in the eye and they look each other in the eye," Shula replied. "Make sure they're accountable and we're accountable for what we do on and off the field. That's the No. 1 thing."
Fans and many football pundits are openly wondering if this Bama team will quit. "If we're doing everything right and playing as hard as we can and come up short, that's one thing," Shula said. "But we've got to be honest with ourselves and find out if we can do it better. If we can, then let's do it."
After the game Saturday Shula told the media that he was going "back to the drawing board" with the team. "We'll dissect everything in all three phases," Shula said Sunday by way of explanation. "How is our running game? Is this the best way to do our inside runs, our outside runs? Is this the best way we can protect? Is this the best way to give opportunities to guys to make plays? Do we have the right guys on the field that can cover and make plays in the open field? Do we have the right returners back there? Do we need to play more zone or man coverage on defense? Do we need to blitz more? Do we need to get other guys on the field?
"You (go through self-assessment) every week, but for sure when something like this happens. Make sure you cover everything you can do."
But Shula is realistic about what can be accomplished after eight games. "There is no magic formula that will get you out of it," he explained. "You have to make sure you do all the little things right consistently."
Inevitably when a team loses badly any controversial coaching decision will be scrutinized closely. With approximately eight minutes to go in the first quarter and Ole Miss up 10-0, Alabama put together a modest drive. The Tide made it as far as the Rebel 44 yardline, when a third-down pass came up one yard short of a first down. Instead of going for it on fourth down, Shula chose to try and draw Ole Miss off-sides and then punt away and play defense. Five plays later Ole Miss scored again to go up by three scores.
Shula talked about the decision. "It was 10-0 and early in the game. We had gone for it a couple of weeks ago and didn't get it. It's not ideal to give good field position to a guy like Eli Manning. We hoped to pin them down and play some defense. It's tougher sometimes on the road to go for it on fourth down. We went with the play to try and draw them off sides, see if we could get a cheap one, but it didn't work."
Alabama faced a hot quarterback Saturday. Eli Manning lived up to all his Heisman hype, throwing perfect passes that shredded the Tide defense.
"We can look at changing up our coverage," Shula acknowledged. "But on several plays we looked like we had the receivers covered. Eli just moved around and bought some time and they got open. That's what happened on the touchdown right before the half."
No one expected the Tide to completely shut Manning down, but clearly Shula hoped the Bama stop unit would do better.
"Guys like Eli are going to make plays," Shula admitted. "As the head coach on the other end you'd like to say our guys are going to go and stop him. Our player was in great position on the first touchdown pass. Just right at the end he doesn't finish, and Ole Miss did a nice job of finishing. We were just aggressive on the long pass. Their man ran a better route. We didn't cover well."
"Anytime you watch a football game you're going to see a team with good quarterbacks and good receivers make plays," Shula continued. "We just don't want to give up big plays. Unfortunately Saturday we did. You just hate to all of a sudden be in a hole at the end of the first quarter. If we had gotten the lead early ourselves or just been able to do some things, but they obviously did a better job than we did."
Manning's success was perhaps understandable. But Ole Miss actually ran for almost as many yards as it passed for (216 to 230).
We were hoping for better results (from our run defense)," Shula said. "Several factors combined. Sometimes we didn't take on the blockers like we should. Other times they had the right play called against our defense. Sometimes it was a momentum thing. We had a third-and-one and got a guy in the backfield who just missed the tackle. All those things combined."
But Shula acknowledged that several Tide defenders simply did not play well. "We had a couple of missed tackles," he said. "Some guys that had been playing well defensively didn't play quite as well. We couldn't get off the field (on third downs). It was more a problem of being in the wrong gap and then getting off blocks as much as it was (poor) tackling.
"If we just get off the field on third down and not give up a touchdown right before the half, then some of that stuff doesn't show up as much."
Shula concluded, "Sometimes it's schemes and sometimes it's execution, and sometimes it's both. Sometimes they call the right play against your scheme, which happens every game."
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