Shula: Saturday Will Be Different Ballgame

Alabama football Head Coach Mike Shula said that he expects Mississippi to rebound from its seven point loss at the hands of Memphis last week and challenge the Crimson Tide with a physical offensive line and a speedy defense this week.

Alabama (1-0) and Mississippi (0-1) meet for their 2004 Southeastern Conference opener at Bryant-Denny Stadium at 8 p.m. Saturday night, with the game televised on ESPN2. The game is already a sellout.

"They had a difficult loss last week but we think they're going to be even more motivated because of that," Shula said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

"They're very talented on their whole football team and they're well-coached. It's obvious when you look at all three phases. We've got to improve on the things that we did last weekend if we want to have a chance against Ole Miss. We've got to play better in a lot of areas."

"This weekend is a big weekend for our football team," Shula said. "We're opening up in the SEC against one of the better teams that we faced last year, and we feel like has gotten even better, especially defensively."

Much of the questioning was about the 2003 contest in Oxford, Mississippi, where the Rebels jumped on the Tide quickly, taking a 24-0 first quarter lead in route to a 43-28 win. Shula said, "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't in the back of our minds" but that his team is focused on the 2004 game, not the one from a year ago.

"This team is a lot different than we were last year," Shula said of his own squad. "We've got a lot of different guys contributing in different ways than last year. We have to be focused on preparing."

Despite several breaks going Mississippi's way last year, one of the most disappointing things about last year's game was the lack of aggressive play by his squad.

"Watching the tame something we weren't proud of is they physical part of it," he said. "They looked faster than us on the tape. But we want to look for it and learn from it."

"We did nothing to stop their momentum last year," Shula said, "and they kept riding that wave and kept riding it and it was too little too late by the fourth quarter. And that's what you're going to face each week in the SEC and that's why you've got to be on top of your game."

Of Mississippi's defense, Shula seemed most concerned with the line, which he said is faster group that the Rebel's had a year ago. The coach said his squad would have to deal with slanting and stunting by the Mississippi line.

"These guys rush a passer real well," he said. "They're fast. They can get on an edge and get to the quarterback in a hurry, plus they like to blitz you.

"Our protection wasn't good enough last week. It wasn't good enough especially on third down, so we've got to work hard this week first of all to understand what they're going to try to do to us."

One of the keys to Mississippi's success, Shula said, is forcing opposing offenses into long yardage situations.

"When we look at our (videotape) cutups, and you look at their third and long reel - It's long. They've got a lot of plays over in third and long and that's why they're successful on defense."

Shula noted that the Rebels also have a talented specialists on the squad with "two real good kickers, some of the best in the country, their kicker and punter," Shula said. "They cover well. They led the SEC in kickoff returns last year."

Shula expects the Mississippi offensive line to try to establish domination right of the bat Saturday night.

"They're going to try to run the ball at us with their big, experienced offensive linemen up front," Shula said. "They've got big receivers that can run, catch the ball. They've got a lot of depth in a lot of positions. So we definitely have our hands full.

"We've got to have three great practices and just do a much better job in everything that we do this week than we did last week."

Shula said that, in addition to stopping the run, his squad must be leery of quarterback Michael Spurlock, who will be starting only his second game for Mississippi. Spurlock was 11-of-31 for 182 yards in his debut versus Memphis, and rushed for six yards on 11 carries.

"Spurlock is just getting his feet underneath him," Shula said. "Eli (Manning) was an added weapon for them last year, and (Spurlock) is an added weapon in his own way. It might be different from Eli's style but he's very quick. He's another running back, so to speak, when you talk about guys that can make plays without throwing the football.

"Now, throwing the football, he's got a strong arm. And he's not afraid to use that. And they do a nice job protecting. So our corners and our defensive backs are going to have to do a nice job covering and we're going to have to try to get as much pressure as we can up front."

Shula said his young players passed their first test against Utah State, but that they weren't in the clear.

"Our freshmen are learning a lot," Shula said. "The thing is this week we are going to be playing against a lot better athletes. They have played one game and they did a nice job playing with a lot of confidence. You see that during the week and on game day.

"Now the difference is they've got to get used to the day after the game and the day off when we have less than a week to prepare for the next game. The defense we're facing is going to be totally different than what they saw last week. How they handle it mentally is going to be the biggest thing."

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