After reviewing the film of Alabama's 26-7 win over Middle Tennessee Saturday night, Crimson Tide head coach Mike Shula had a better grasp of his team's overall performance when he addressed the media on Sunday.
Shula was pleased with the way the Tide responded to a sluggish first half in the win.
"I was happy with the way we finished the game," Shula said. "We started a little bit slow in all three phases of the game. But I thought our players and coaches made some good adjustments at halftime. We got some momentum early in the third quarter, put some points on the board and kind of took them out of the game."
One of those adjustments apparently of the attitude variety. In hopes of motivating his teammates, halfback Kenneth Darby delivered a rousing speech at the break.
"He just said how everybody wants to talk about how good we are and how we can win a lot of ballgames, but that it was time for certain people to start backing that up," quarterback Brodie Croyle said. "I think the people he singled out did for the most. He also challenged the offensive line to pick up their blocking. I guess it worked because they seemed to pick it up in the second half."
In addition to Darby's motivational speech, the Alabama coaching staff picked out a few running plays that weren't included in the game plan to take advantage of an overly aggressive approach by Middle Tennessee's defensive ends and linebackers. Darby proceeded to make the Blue Raider pay, picking up big yardage on several cutback runs to start the third quarter.
"Our coaches felt like we could make a couple of little adjustments and get some good looks for a couple of our runs," Shula said. "And, boy , they were good looks. Darby just has a feel for those kind of things. The biggest thing is to get hats on hats and just drive. With a guy like (Darby) back there he'll run through some arm tackles and make some people miss, but you can't have people free in the hole."
The offensive line represented the Tide's biggest area of concern heading into the opener, but Shula thought the unit performed well for the most part.
"I thought we pass protected pretty well," Shula said. "I thought we were a little inconsistent coming off of some linebackers early on, but overall I thought they were pretty good."
"The only time I got hit was on the touchdown pass (to Tyrone Prothro), so they definitely had a strong performance," Croyle added. "We've got to get better each week. In watching the film, we missed a few twists and they didn't blitz that much, so we didn't have that many pickups."
Right guard Mark Sanders got the first start of his career, but his first extended playing time may ultimately be most remembered for the knee injury he sustained in the third quarter. Shula said more will be known about Sanders' status later today or tomorrow.
With Sanders out, freshman Marlon Davis is in line to start next week against Southern Mississippi.
"It's amazing and surprising," Davis said of his rise up the depth chart. "It's something I didn't really expect, but I worked hard over the summer to get as strong and as quick as I could in case my number was called."
"That's one of the reasons why we wanted to get him in there (against Middle Tennessee)," Shula said of Davis. "We needed to get him some experience, and we also think he's good enough to do the job."
B.J. Stabler, whose return from arthroscopic knee surgery is reportedly ahead of schedule, is another possibility at guard.
"We think he's got a chance to come back and practice Tuesday," Shula said. "I'm not sure if he'll be able to go through team drills, but he should be able to take part in individual drills."
Croyle hooked up with eight different receivers in completing 16-of-24 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown. Keith Brown led all receivers with five catches for 84 yards.
"Keith worked really hard this summer," Shula said. "He got hurt a little bit in training camp and missed a few days, but he's an explosive receiver. He's exciting to see because he is so fast. What I liked about him last night was that when he caught the ball he was getting the ball down the field. It was good to see that combination from No. 81."
Whenever Prothro drops a pass it's big news, but the junior from Heflin made up for his second-quarter miscue with a leaping grab of a 13-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
"I don't think there are a lot of guys out there who can go up that high and still come down in bounds," Shula said of the Croyle-to-Prothro connection.
Immediately after Saturday's game, Croyle gave the offense a "C" grade for its play. What are his thoughts now that he has had a chance to watch the Middle Tennessee film?
"There's a lot of things we could have done better. It seemed like we'd have a big play and then we'd be in third-and-long all over again," Croyle said on Sunday. We just weren't very efficient, especially in the first half. We can't get to the 50-yard line and be happy about moving the ball. We've got to keep those drives going."
In stepping up its play in the second half, the defense seemed to mirror the offense in the win.
"I thought we played better (in the second half). We had the one drive where we had a couple of missed assignments and we gave up the touchdown," Shula said. "Getting the safety early was big. We did a good job of punting the ball down inside the ten and our defense took advantage of the holding call and got the safety. We got them in some third and longs and we won on first down in the second half. I thought our defense did a good job of giving them different looks and changing up the coverages."
Starting middle linebacker Freddie Roach injured his right elbow while covering the Tide's first punt of the game, thus keeping him from seeing a single snap on defense. With Roach going out early, DeMeco Ryans, normally the starter on the strongside, slid inside to Roach's spot, giving Terrence Jones the start at SAM.
With Roach's status for next Saturday's game with Southern Miss uncertain, it's a combination the Tide may be forced to stick with for a while.
"We can move DeMeco in the middle and play Terrence on the outside," Shula said. "Or we can bring in Demarcus Waldrop, as well as Matt Collins in the middle."
Jones thrived in making his first start, posting four tackles and a sack. The only drawback in an otherwise stellar performance was the ankle injury he sustained late in the third quarter.
"Somebody cut (blocked) me or something," Jones said on Sunday. "I feel fine. With some rehab I should be straight."
Although he wasn't pleased with the multitude of penalties his kick return teams committed, Shula was impressed by placekicker Ryan Saxby, who got the nod after Jamie Christensen was suspended for the opener. And while Christensen will be available for USM, Shula isn't ready to hand him the kickoff and/or field goal/PAT job.
"That's something we're going to talk about," Shula said. "I thought (Saxby) elevated his game last night. For a kicker, no matter how old you are, to come in there the first time and perform like that is impressive."
Last night also served as the debut for Jeff Aul, who averaged 36 yards per punt on three attempts.
"Jeff bobbled the one snap and that was disappointing, but he had the one good punt that led to the safety," Shula said. "We've just got to continue to work on the operation of the punter and the snapper and make sure (Aul's ) get-off times are good."
A sizeable contingent of first-time players appeared against Middle Tennessee, a group that included 10 true freshmen.
"I think Glen Coffee did a nice job running the football and he made a nice catch and made a guy miss," Shula said. "I think Bobby Greenwood came in and did some nice things on the defensive line. On the kickoff fumble recovery, Corey Reamer made the hit and Chris Keys got the recovery. The two young tight ends, Nick Walker and Travis McCall, got some quality snaps and did some good things. Marlon Davis did some good some things blocking."
Next up for Alabama is USM. With Hattiesburg reeling from the effects of Katrina, the Golden Eagles have relocated to Memphis. The University of Memphis has opened up its facilities to USM and the Golden Eagles began practicing there last Thursday.
Southern's game with Tulane was postponed over the weekend, leaving Alabama to serve as the opener for Jeff Bower's team.
In addition to not having the Tulane film to go by, preparing for USM will be further complicated by the new coordinators the Golden Eagles have on each side of the ball. In the offseason, Bower promoted Jay Johnson to offensive coordinator, and Jay Hopson was tabbed to replace Tyrone Nix, who left the program to take a co-defensive coordinator position at South Carolina.
"We'll look at the film from last year and we'll combine our game with some of the games they played later on in the season," Shula said. "We may anticipate a few changes with them. They've gone through some changes and they've had a whole offseason to adjust some things."