Slow starts crippling Tide

Crippled offensively by an attack that too often simply can't get started, the 2003 season has so far played out horrendously for the Tide. <br><br>Tide Head Coach Mike Shula commented, "It's been nightmarish as far as some of the starts. We can't come out and not play well from the start and expect to win against a good football team, which is what happened Saturday."

On its recent trip to Oxford, Alabama obviously left its game on the bus. Riding the hot arm of Eli Manning, the Ole Miss Rebels quickly took a 24-0 lead in the first quarter and extended it to 31-10 by the half.

"They jumped on us early," Shula said. "We just dug ourselves a big hole."

Senior free safety Charles Jones has no explanation for his team's leaden feet at the start of games. "I can't say; all I know is we need to go out there and play," Jones said. "A slow start is hurting us, but we've just got to get ready to play early. The other team is ready to play. They're coming ready to play, and we've got to know that. I think we're emotionally ready to play, it's just making the play.

Alabama's chronically slow starts has prompted Mike Shula to reevaluate the entire team. (Barry Fikes photo)

"I don't know. I can't explain it."

The previous week Alabama actually took the lead against Southern Miss and made it hold up the whole game. But against Georgia the week before Bama got blitzed by the Bulldogs early, yielding a modern-school record of 37 points before the half.

"Whether or not it's intensity or whether or not it's execution, it was probably a little bit of both," Shula said in assessing what his team lacks at the start of games. "Neither has been satisfactory. Our guys have played hard, but it does no good when you make mistakes. Mistakes are costly. A receiver slips down and all of a sudden there is an interception.

"I'm not pointing fingers. That starts with me. We have to find ways to coach not falling down and not kicking the ball out of bounds. This week we will be making sure we have the right players on the field."

Against Arkansas in week 5, the Tide played even through the first half. After the break Bama forged ahead and looked to be about to cruise to victory. But mistakes combined with an exhausted defense lost the game in overtime.

"We've had some games where it didn't seem like any break went our way," quarterback Brodie Croyle said. "We got in a big hole early. Hopefully we can start out faster than we have in the past and maybe put (Tennessee) in a hole early."

Last Saturday versus Ole Miss there were unmistakable signs that the entire team wasn't into the game. But prior to that embarrassing outing the Tide team had been noted for its refusal to quit.

Even so, Shula doesn't count Pyrrhic victories. "Our team does fight hard, but that doesn't make you feel any better other than that you have guys that the game means something to. We don't want to have people talk about how hard we play. When they do that it means they've got nothing better to say. We'd rather them say ‘You did a good job winning the game.'"

The players admitted traveling to Oxford assuming they would play well. When the arrived they found a Rebel squad that knew it was going to be successful.

"I think everybody was in shock about how we started," linebacker Juwan Garth said. "They were making big plays. Some guys were leaning toward hanging their heads down."

If generally the effort is there, then obviously it comes down to execution. But according to Shula different problems have reared their heads different weeks. "It's not necessarily one thing," he explained. "It's been something different each week. We've got to coach better; concentrate better; play better; keep our poise."

During Bama's first four games, the offense regularly showed up late if at all, placing an unfair burden on the Tide defense. Against Northern Illinois Alabama scored only nine points through three quarters. The previous week's game against Kentucky wasn't that much better, with Bama notching only 13 points during the first three periods.

Juwan Garth

Asked if he had been able to put a finger on the problem, Tide Offensive Coordinator had a unique reply. "I'm about out of fingers," Rader said with dry humor. "But we'll try another finger this week."

Guard Justin Smiley admitted the problem had him stumped. "I'm not really sure what it is. I don't know if it had an effect or not, but the road takes a little bit more concentration. That's going to be a main point of emphasis this week. Coach Shula talked about coming out and attacking."

"I can't tell you why," Croyle admitted. "If I could tell you why, I'm sure we could score a lot of points. It's one of those things we've got to get fixed."

Up until Saturday Bama had the excuse that all its losses had at least come against Top-20 caliber competition. But Ole Miss was not ranked.

Are the players getting ready to quit?

"We're all discouraged right now," Shula acknowledged. "I can only answer that question as honestly as I can. Our guys have worked up to now. We're going to find out a lot about ourselves as far as our mental toughness, as far as growing up a little bit and maturing."

Saturday the Tide fell behind by a large margin early in a game on the road, and some players ended up not playing as hard as they had been in previous weeks.

Charlie Peprah says his teammates are frustrated.

Cornerback Charlie Peprah commented, "When you get down that quickly, it's frustrating because you're not playing the way you know you can. It's been like that for the past few games. When it happens in the first quarter it snowballs on you. You have to settle down. We played a better second half, but we still gave up too many big plays. That's been killing us."

Everyone knows that Shula and his staff were forced to teach and implement their offensive system just during fall camp. Would Bama's offense be better with those missing months of practice?

"No question; no question," Rader said. "But as coaches you always want more experience, and we don't have that. So we make do with what we do have. With what we have we'll just have to be better. We're capable of it."

Shula concluded, "I'm not pointing fingers. I hope I don't ever get to that point because it all starts with me. We're going to find a way not to slip down. We're going to find a way not to kick the ball out of bounds. We're going to find ways not to beat ourselves. That's what we get paid to do as coaches. We're going to look at everything. Make sure we've got the right guys on the field.

"We've got to get it done."


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