Tide maintains tunnel vision

Rumors are swirling around Auburn, regarding Tommy Tuberville and his future as head coach. But his Alabama counterpart Mike Shula remains focused on more important matters.

"We've got to play better than we've played; that's the bottom line," Mike Shula said following Wednesday's practice. "And do it for 60 minutes."

The University of Alabama football team had a two-hour workout Wednesday in preparation for its meeting with arch-rival Auburn this weekend. The Crimson Tide and Tigers square off for the 69th time on Saturday, with Alabama holding a 38-28-1 series lead.

The road team has won the last four meetings, including wins by Alabama here in Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1999 (28-17) and 2001 (31-7). The game will kick off at 6:47 p.m. and will be televised nationally by ESPN.

"We had a much better practice today," Shula said. "We ended with a two-minute drill, which was very spirited. The players are focused. We've got to have one more good day of preparation, actually two more good days. We're going to spend a little more time Thursday and Friday preparing mentally."

Shula said the team would work indoors Thursday, using amplified noise to prepare for Saturday's game atmosphere. Friday afternoon the squad will travel to the team hotel in Montgomery where they'll stay overnight.

Last weekend LSU blitzed effectively for most of the game, pressuring Bama's quarterback and disrupting the Tide offense. Shula said he's sure that Auburn has studied that game closely.

"I'm sure they're going to look at some of the same things," he said. "We've got to make sure we're ready. That's why you go over things on Sunday. If you have problems (in one game), then you'll see them again."

Obviously the offensive line is primarily responsible for pass protection, but Shula pointed out that countering defensive blitzing is a team. "You'll hear me preach that from Day One till whenever; it's all of us, the whole team," he said. "If we're getting pressure on our passer, we've got to do a better job up front. But the quarterback has also got to do a better job getting the ball out. Receivers have to do a better job getting open earlier. (As coaches) we've got to do a better job calling plays and putting them in a position to execute."

Shula sounded the same note in regard to Alabama's run offense. "That's been a huge emphasis, but it's not just the offensive line; it takes everybody. Receivers have to block down field. We've got to make sure we're in the right play."

"We've got to have balance," he continued. "When we're not running we've got to be effective with the football throwing it. The line has to protect. Brodie (Croyle) has got to throw it, and we've got to catch it. That way we're not one-dimensional. That will make our running game more effective."

The availability of guard Dennis Alexander and tight end Clint Johnston could affect Bama's ability to run the ball. Both athletes are key members of the Tide offense, and both are recovering from injury. Shula said that he expected a decision on Alexander (ankle) and Johnston (irritated nerve) to be made tomorrow. Both players were dressed out and participated in Wednesday's workout.

Bama's offensive line has been hit especially hard by injuries. "It's been similar to a lot of other positions; we're all working for more consistency," Shula said. "It becomes tougher when you have injuries, but we've got guys that we feel like can come in and win for us now. Hopefully they'll play their best game this week."

Injuries are just one of the problems Shula has faced during the difficult season, but with Auburn up next motivation will be easy.

He commented, "You notice the growing intensity, especially today. I saw it on both sides of the ball. Special teams also had a real good practice. As we get closer to the game, the guys are starting to get antsy."

Asked if it had dawned on him yet that he would be coaching in his first Alabama/Auburn showdown, Shula said, "There is just too much to do, too much work to get done. Every day we're getting in here early and working late. It'll probably sink afterwards.

"That's how this whole season has been. Jump into the deep end of the pool and come up for air when it's over. We're still in the water."

Reserve tailback Ray Hudson was suspended from last week's game following an arrest for marijuana possession. Shula said that a decision on Hudson's availability Saturday would probably be made tomorrow. Hudson has practiced with the team all week.

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