Shula Discusses Saturday

Saturday night's Alabama football victory over Utah State to open the 2004 season was that "best of all worlds" kind of game. It was, first and most important, a win. Moreover, a lot of players got into the game, including a number of newcomers. There were no significant new injuries to a team that is short on depth. Additionally, it was far from a perfect performance, giving coaches opportunity to have players striving for improvement.

And with the win, Alabama is now 1-0 on the young season. It is now 2004 with the 4-9 record of last season now firmly in the past. Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula agreed with the notion that it's finally a new year. But, he said, "This team has kind of separated itself from last year's team starting with Day One of our off-season program. The Utah State game was another step."

Alabama defeated Utah State, 48-17, Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. This week the Crimson Tide will host the Mississippi Rebels with kickoff shortly after 8 p.m. CDT Saturday and national television coverage by the cable network ESPN2.

Mississippi was defeated by Memphis, 20-13. Memphis also defeated the Rebels last year (44-34). A year ago by the time the Rebels got to Alabama they had rebounded from the loss to the Tigers and defeated the Tide handily, 43-28. But last year's top Rebel was quarterback Eli Manning, and he has moved on to pro football.

Mississippi's loss to Memphis is not good for the Rebels, but it sounds worse than it is. The Tigers have a more experienced team than Mississippi and it was no upset that Memphis won again.

Shula knows that Mississippi will be a tough task for Alabama.

"We've got to get our minds right and get ready for Mississippi," Shula said Sunday as Bama started game week preparation for the Rebels. The Tide will have its regular Monday off day, then resume practice Tuesday.

Shula said, "We're getting into the thick of it this week with Ole Miss. We'll be playing bigger, faster athletes with SEC experience and this will be a new experience for some of our players."

The Tide head coach said that Mississippi will present a challenge "because the offensive line is better than last year and defensively they run to the football. They have good wide receivers. They are very talented. Hopefully, we can come out and do some things we did in the Utah State game. (Mississippi quarterback Michael) Spurlock can make a lot of plays on his own, and we can't let that happen."

Spurlock didn't really make a lot of plays against Memphis. He completed just 11 of 31 passes for 182 yards and the sacks he took were in part responsible for Mississippi having 33 rushes for only 58 net yards.

Shula said he had been "anxious to see how the offensive line would do." The result was mixed reviews. "The effort was good," Shula said. "We talk about finishing plays and for the most part we did, but sometimes the execution in the running game had one or two guys not get their blocks. The biggest thing we have to work on is our protection on third downs. It's nowhere near as good as it needs to be. We had some things blown that we got away with that we won't be able to get away with this week. We need to work on both assignments and technique. And we need to get better on field goal and extra point protection."

Shula was pleased with the offensive balance. In the running game, he said Alabama can be expected to continue to rotate several halfbacks. Ray Hudson is the starter and Kenneth Darby the back-up, with Tim Castille alternating at both fullback and halfback. "It ties in with certain packages being better for certain backs. But if a guy has a hot hand, we'll keep him in. And we won't hesitate to take a guy out if he's winded and put in someone fresh. We think we'll need all three each week."

It was a bit of a surprise that freshman Aaron Johns was used at halfback late in the game. But Shula said that had been planned. "There's no doubt he'll help us this year," the coach said.

Shula said there were times when route-running by new receivers was not sharp and there were breakdowns in blocking by the receivers. "But it wasn't a lack of effort," the coach said. Bama's offense was helped by the infusion of freshmen wide receivers, particularly Keith Brown and D.J. Hall.

"We played a lot of freshmen and it was good to see them out there," Shula said.

The Tide coach said, "The defense was good against the run. We have to get better against the pass."

Shula said, "Anthony (Madison) gave up a big play on a short route when he missed a tackle. That gave them some momentum and let them get back into the game. Anthony had a pass interference call, too. The good thing about Anthony is that if he has a bad play or two, he doesn't let it bother him. He keeps playing. And he had a lot of good plays."

Overall, Shula was pleased with the aggressive play in the secondary, but said, "We have to get better overall."

Shula was pleased with some aspects of the defensive line play, notably the pass-rushing of redshirt freshman Wallace Gilberry. "We didn't get a lot of pressure on the quarterback early in the game, but we got a bit better in the second half," Shula said.

He added that defensive tackle Jeremy Clark had given "a solid game. I think all those guys up front did a pretty good job. But we need to be a little more disciplined in our assignments."

One of the mild surprises of the game was linebacker DeMeco Ryans seeing action. Ryans had missed most practice work for the previous week and a half with a sprained ankle. "He's not 100 per cent, but hopefully he will be this week," Shula said.

Wide receiver Tyrone Prothro was also limited with a bruised leg.

Shula said that tight end Greg McLain "is still bothered by the elbow injury he had surgery on in the spring. It's going to be a while, but he's getting better." McLain did not play.

One thing that pleased Shula was that Bama was penalized only five times for 55 yards. "It was good to see, particularly in the first half when we had only the kickoff out of bounds.

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