Tougher Tide Emerging

We saw a little something different from Alabama Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, but it wasn't in schemes, playcalling or even execution.

"Whew! That was a tough one."

That was the opening comment of Alabama's quarterback John Parker Wilson in the press conference after Alabama's 26-23 overtime win against Ole Miss at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, and truer were never spoken.

It was tough because Alabama hadn't won an overtime contest since 1999, when Shaun Alexander ran into the end zone behind Chris Samuels on a counter sweep to upset the Gators in The Swamp.

It was tough because Alabama had lost its previous two Southeastern Conference games, and dropping a third would have been a disappointment bordering on disaster with five games left to play. Alabama lost in devastating fashion in overtime to Arkansas three weeks ago and played well, but were beaten fair and square by Florida two weeks ago. Last week's 30-14 win over Duke was hardly in the fashion Alabama expected with the Blue Devils hanging ominously close for more than three quarters.

It was tough because three key offensive players suffered injuries during the game. Jimmy Johns limped off the field for halftime and missed the second half, while Keith Brown injured his left knee (in what Mike Shula thought to be a strain, and not a ligament tear) and sat out the overtime period. DJ Hall re-injured a shoulder he first banged up in the Florida game, but returned for his fourth straight 100-yard game and the record-setting seventh 100-yard receiving game in his career.

It was a tough because Ole Miss played its best game of the year. The Rebels staked a lot on the outcome of the game and entered confident and well prepared. Brent Schaeffer had one of his best games (even if that's not saying a whole lot) completing 13 of 20 passes for 163 yards, hitting eight different receivers, throwing a touchdown pass and not throwing an interception (he entered the game with four TD passes and eight interceptions).

"This was a key game for our program," Ole Miss Coach Ed Orgeron said afterwards. "We wanted to come and beat Alabama on the road and we threw everything that we had at them. I think this is the best we have played since I have been here, even though we lost."

It was tough because Alabama's defense is not as dominant this year as it has been in the past two years, and because they are going to allow some drives by opponents.

And maybe it was tough because Alabama needed to toughen up before going to Neyland Stadium. Tougher times lie ahead this season, and it looked like a tougher Crimson Tide team emerged out of Bryant-Denny Saturday night.

"That's the first time we on an overtime game, so that will give us more confidence," Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula said. But he cautioned, "The momentum in this conference is short lived."

Alabama evened its record in the league at 2-2, and now is looking for its biggest road win since 2002, against a Tennessee team which peaked last time out with a 27-point fourth quarter against Georgia, and had this weekend off. Toughness will be at a premium.

Will Oakley asserted himself as a trustworthy third man for John Parker Wilson, toeing the line to stay inbounds on a third down catch in the first half when he was the quarterback's last option, and later when he caught a short out-route in overtime for a key third down conversion – when he was the first option.

Kenneth Darby stood up and proclaimed that the Kenneth Darby of old had returned. With backup (and entering the game Alabama's best running back by average) Jimmy Johns sidelined the entire second half, Darby became the workhorse, ripping off his two longest runs if the season en route to 162 yards on the day. That went hand-in-hand with an offensive line which had its best day, staying on blocks longer and picking up the blitz better than it had in any game.

Prince Hall stiffened his neck on defense, racking up eight tackles including two for loss, only to be outdone by Simeon Castille who had 10 tackles, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry.

It's going to take more than toughness for this Alabama team facing Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn to round out the league schedule in the coming weeks. Alabama has shown flashes of being able to hang with the Southeastern Confernece heavies against both Arkansas and Florida. The Crimson Tide will have to improve defensively, continue to be a run and pass threat offensively and be better in the kicking game (Jamie Christensen made two 26-yard field goals, but two kickoffs out of bounds cost the Tide a lot of field position).

But for all the areas where improvement can be found, the toughness on display for Alabama Saturday looks like a good place to start.

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