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October 1, 2006
Shula needs to score points with Tide fans
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Crimson tried.
And failed, in a manner which is becoming so common that Alabama's passionate, exuberant – OK, psychotic – football fans might soon lose their patience.
Another game, another offensive breakdown. Yet the scary part for Alabama – even scarier than a Florida defense that allowed just two field goals and grabbed three interceptions in a 28-13 victory on Saturday – was that in the aftermath the Tide actually felt like they were successful with the football.
"We were moving the ball pretty good, had a lot of yards on offense," quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "We've just got to make plays on offense, and we didn't do that. We knew we were going to have to throw the ball, and came out slinging."
The Tide's championship aspirations, as unrealistic as they were, are now in a sling. Back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Florida knocks Alabama (3-2, 1-2) almost entirely out of the Southeastern Conference West Division race. With Tennessee, LSU and Auburn remaining on the schedule, a 7-5 finish is a distinct possibility.
Even in rebuilding years Tide fans feel they're above Shreveport, La., in December, but the Independence Bowl might be the best Alabama can do.
That won't sit well with Bama's demanding fans, especially if the Cow College on the other side of the state – as Bear Bryant once called Auburn – stays undefeated and plays for the national championship.
Should that happen, Alabama's demanding fans may start calling for the ouster of fourth-year coach Mike Shula, a genuinely nice guy who directed Alabama to 10 victories just a year ago.
Some already are calling for Shula's dismissal.
At least one newspaper columnist in the state ripped Shula unmercifully after last week's 24-23 loss to Arkansas, in which two missed field goals in the fourth quarter and a blown extra point in overtime doomed the Tide. Shula didn't kick the field goals, but was kicked when he was down, anyway.
Shula has been down – or at least Alabama's offensive output has been – for one year.
Yes, a year has passed since gifted receiver Tyrone Prothro broke his leg when he should have been on the sideline.
Coincidentally, Alabama's offense was similarly fractured. Like Prothro, you wonder when – if – Alabama will ever be the same.
Saturday's loss at The Swamp was more of the same – the same struggle and the same futility that Alabama has so routinely endured since Oct. 1, 2005.
Prothro broke his leg while trying to catch a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of a rout against Florida. Alabama already had a 31-3 lead at the time. Since then, Alabama has managed 20 points in just four of 12 games, and three of those were against low-profile Utah State, Hawaii and Louisiana-Monroe.
The only time Alabama has reached 20 points against an opponent from a power conference in that span was the 24-23 loss to Arkansas, and the Tide needed the overtime period to do that.
If not for Joe Kines' elite defenses, Alabama might be on even terms with Vanderbilt. Oh, wait, the Tide needed a late field goal to beat Vandy 13-10 three weeks ago. Bad example.
But not as bad as the 'Bama offense, which did not produce a touchdown against Florida. The only time Alabama reached the end zone was on a 50-yard fumble return by linebacker Prince Hall.
"It was a tough loss and difficult to swallow," Shula said. "Our guys played hard, and we had a real good week of practice and preparation, but you hate to see that not pay off for your guys.
"We did some good things, we had the lead and then Florida came out with the quarterback run (a 45-yard dash by Chris Leak) in the second quarter where he ran against the blitz. That gave them the chance to get the ball in the end zone. Then we had the missed field goal."
Alabama's Jamie Christensen missed a 51-yard field goal. Florida missed one, too, and from 15 yards closer.
"I thought we handled he ball well," Shula continued. "But we just had too much missed communication with Keith (Brown) and John Parker. It's unfortunate. At these times, you rely on your team to get it done and make plays to win on Saturday."
Brown only caught four passes for 36 of Alabama's 240 passing yards, but the biggest issue for Alabama remains its lack of a running game. The Tide entered the Florida game averaging 149 yards against questionable competition, and produced just 83 yards on the ground against the Gators.
When not fearing the running game, good defenses can render excellent receivers ineffective.
Running back Kenneth Darby had his second most productive day of the season with 76 yards, but 42 came on three carries. The rest of the day he averaged three yards an attempt.
Perhaps Alabama's running game issues should be expected, as least to some degree. Although Wilson has played very well in his first season as the starting quarterback, Alabama has only one senior in its entire two-deep on the offensive line. The offensive front is an area in which physical strength (which tends to increase with age) and cohesion are vital.
Alabama's young linemen should get better each week, particularly true freshman Andre Smith who looks like the country's next great offensive lineman, and upcoming games with lowly Duke, Ole Miss, Florida International and Mississippi State – which have combined for just two victories so far this season – will provide opportunity for Alabama's offense to get in the end zone more frequently.
"I think we are starting to have an identity," offensive coordinator Dave Rader said after the loss to Florida. "We can throw the ball and we have two great receivers (Brown and DJ Hall). We also have some good running backs. Moving the ball isn't the problem.
"But the identity that we don't want to have – and what we had today – is one of turning the ball over. We need to put that identity somewhere deep in the cave and keep it there."
If the Crimson Tide offense doesn't start producing more points, disgruntled fans may be saying the same thing about Alabama's coaches.