Shula Evaluates Tide

Two games do not a football season make, but it's good to be 2-0 after the first two games. And there should be little danger of Alabama feeling complacent coming to the third, even though the opponent is Division 1AA Western Carolina.

Alabama's football team ran its record to 2-0 overall and 1-0 in Southeastern Conference play Saturday night with a convincing 28-7 win over Mississippi. Bama will have its third straight night home game Saturday when the Crimson Tide hosts Western Carolina at 6 p.m. CDT in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game will be telecast on a Pay Per View basis.

In his regular Sunday update for the media, Alabama Coach Mike Shula said, "The players were focused against Ole Miss, and you would have expected that. It was an SEC game and the players understand the importance of getting off to a good start in the SEC. This week is different, and we've got to have that same focus. And it can't be a fake deal."

Western Carolina plays at a level below Alabama. One judgment will be that even though the Catamounts are a very good Division AA team, they are still Division AA. Another judgment will be that even though Western Carolina is Division AA, they are a very good team.

But when analysts were examining the 2004 Alabama football season, there is likely none who listed this week's game as anything but a victory for the Crimson Tide.

Shula said it will not be hard to motivate his team this week. "The number one thing we're going to talk about is a year ago we played a team we didn't know a lot about–Northern Illinois–and we got our butts beat (19-16)."

Shula said that the victory over Mississippi, a year after the Rebels had embarrassed Bama in Oxford, was "a good win. Our players fought hard. We were very physical, led by our defense. The stops we made after our early turnovers kept us in the game even though we had lost field position."

He said the first quarter 98-yard drive that gave Alabama 7-0 lead was very big. "We had some big plays and cashed in, then got the quick turnover and a 14-0 lead going to halftime. We swapped touchdowns in the second half, then got a late one."

He said a key was keeping Mississippi quarterback Michael Spurlock in the pocket and keeping the pressure on Spurlock. "Everyone was handling his responsibility," he said of the defensive troops.

Shula also noted that Bama got the ball for a final time with just under nine minutes to play and kept the ball the remainder of the contest without throwing a pass. Bama had a first down at the Mississippi two-yard line with just under a minute to play, but the Crimson Tide did not attempt to score.

The coach said, "It's good to have two wins in two games, but it's too early to say (the Alabama program is back). We watch the tapes and see a lot of plays where we need to get better. The good news is that we can do that, and we're 2-0 and last year we weren't 2-0."

Shula added, "We're such a young teamthat we have to improve every week. And that's across the board. It starts with Brodie (quarterback Brodie Croyle) and the offense, the defense, and we need to do a better job on special teams." Shula agreed that victories are good for his team's confidence. "Any time you win, it's good," Shula said. "You have to earn the right to be a football team and you have to learn how to win. We've had two fairly good games, but I'm not sure we've dominated in them. The important thing is to have consistency, to do it week-in and week-out. And That doesn't mean just on Saturdays. It means every day."

Even though he expects improvement in all areas, Shula said he has been pleased by some things. He particularly noted "Our effort has been real good, especially defensively. Our guys are flying to the ball and understanding their roles."

Shula kept coming back to the issue of needed improvement. "If you don't improve each week, it will catch up to you," he said. He noted tha the offensive line gets some credit for Ray Hudson rushing 14 times for 116 yards and Kenneth Darby having 17 runs for 86 yards, but noted, "Our offensive line let some guys come free and our backs did a great job of making them miss."

Even though Bama held Mississippi to only nine first downs, only 75 yards rushing, and only 117 yards passing (192 total yards), Shula said, "We missed some tackles."

And he found problems with special teams, which had a turnover, a kickoff out of bounds, and a long runback on a short kickoff.

But, Shula admitted, "We also had some good plays."

The Tide head coach said he got a little surprise when he saw the final statistics.

"I actually thought we were throwing it more than we did," Shula said. Croyle completed 14 of 22 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

Shula said, "We need to throw it more. But we got the lead and we were having success running it. You want to use all your weapons, and we sure think Brodie is one of those weapons. But when something is working, like the run, you keep doing it until they stop it."

Shula said, "We're calling a lot of the same things we called last year. This year we're just executing it. We're reading it better and getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand so far. The guys are doing a better job when their number is called. Now it's a matter of continuing to do that."

Shula was asked about Alabama's defensive front rotation. "It's night and day compared to last year," the coach said. "It seemed like last year the starters played the whole game every week. We went into this season saying we had to play more guys to keep the guys fresh. We feel better about guys like Justin Britt and Anthony Bryant coming in at tackle. Wallace Gilberry continues to improve and so does Chris Harris (at end). And we have some good depth at linebacker with Terrence Jones coming on at strong and Cornelius Wortham and Freddie Roach splittimg time at mike (middle). We need to have that kind of depth."

He said that offensive line rotation is not going to be as regular as it is on the defenisve line. He did say that Von Ewing at right tackle and Chris Capps at left tackle will continue to get more playing time.

Shula was asked about various players. Among his comments:

On safety Roman Harper, who led Bama with 11 tackles and forced a fumble that led to an Alabama touchdown, Shula said, "Roman has a real good understanding of what we're trying to do defensively. He's smart. He's always around the ball. On the blitz, we brought one more than they could protect against. We know one is going to come free, but we don't know who, and he has to be ready for the opportunity."

On freshman cornerback Simeon Castille, Shula said, "He's a lot like Tim (starting fullback Tim Castille) in that he has a lot of poise and a lot of confidence. The more he plays the better he gets. But we know he's young and he's going to make mistakes. He's going to be going up against guys who are real good in upcoming weeks."

On center J.B. Closner, Shula said, "J.C. has done a great job communicating and is starting to become a leader up front, which is important."

On guard Evan Mathis, who moved from tackle this year, Shula said, "Evan is coming along, although he struggles at times."

On freshman wide receiver Keith Brown, Shula said, "Keith has been productive, but probably made more mistakes in this game than the first one. He and D.J. (D.J. Hall, another freshman wide receiver), played okay, but not as good as the week before. There are better athletes covering them. But they played hard. They are getting there. They just need experience."

Brown and Hall both started against Mississippi, the first true freshmen to start at wide receiver for Alabama since Ozzie Newsome in 1974.

Shula was asked if there had been any surprises this year, and the coach had to struggle to come up with one. He said that maybe tight end Clint Johnston would be considered a surprise just because there was some concern about how Johnston would come back from injuries.

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