West Virginia's upset dreams fade late vs. No. 2 Alabama in Atlanta

Written by Stephen J. Nesbitt on .

ATLANTA — Yeah, Dusty, that about sums it up.

There was a particular agony in West Virginia’s 33-23 loss to No. 2 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Saturday night.

Agonizing because these 26-point underdogs were that close to slaying the giant. Agonizing because it just reads 0-1 anyway. Agonizing because it didn’t follow the script, in the end it was just a damn good football game.

"There is no such thing as a moral victory to me,” Clint Trickett said afterward. “I hate that. We lost the game. You play to win the game."

There was plenty to glean, not least of which is that Alabama, too, is far from a finished product. Rankings are sparkly and pretty, but they don’t mean much Week 1.

All analysis of West Virginia’s offense has to be sent through the lens of, well, just how good is Alabama’s defense? And we really just don’t know yet. Going by the numbers, only eight teams in the past five years have scored 23 points or more against the vaunted Crimson Tide defense.

• PASSING | Trickett performed admirably, as expected, and you’re seeing another wildly talented pair of receivers emerge in Kevin White and Mario Alford. I say emerge, but they were here a year ago and showed glimpses — this is where they emerged onto the national scene.

Trickett was 29-of-45 passing for 365 yards and a touchdown, which was an absolute beauty to White in the back of the end zone. It was one of nine catches for White, who had a career-high 143 catches. Let’s be honest, he straight up bullied corner Bradley Sylva tonight.

• RUSHING | Rushel Shell got the start at running back in his West Virginia debut and looked every bit the bruising back he was before his transfer from Pitt and one-year siesta. West Virginia rode the Shell train early, as he racked up 39 yards on seven carries in the first half, and then that was halted. He had three carries for -1 yards in the second half.

“I don’t know what we had rushing, but it probably wasn’t enough,” Holgorsen said, peering down at the box score in front of him. “What was it, 28 yards? I guess that’s not very good.”

True that, Coach. But Alabama stops the run better than just about anybody. Holgorsen admitted the staff may have abandoned the run too early.

• DROPS | There were more than a handful of bad drops on the part of West Virginia receivers.

"It's the first game of the year,” Trickett said. “If I get on them, who knows what it's going to do the rest of the year. They're going to make those plays. I know they are. I have complete confidence in the older guys,the younger guys. It happens. They're going to make those plays, and I probably could have put the ball better in those situations."

• RETURNS | Remember a few months back when Alford opened the WVU Spring Game by taking a kickoff return to the house? Well, he did it again, and it was spectacular.

Alford’s 100-yard kickoff return tied the game, 17-17, late in the second quarter. Alford evaded a tackler, angled to the right and rode the sideline slipstream to the end zone.

"Mario, the fastest kid on the planet, just outran the fastest team in the country by himself," Trickett said.

Alford’s heroics shouldn’t have been a surprise either; he did the same thing in West Virginia’s spring game.

"Once I was past everyone it was the home stretch for me," Alford said. And “Super Mario” doesn’t believe anybody can catch him in a footrace. "No, I don't," he said with a smile. "Seriously, I don't."

• THIRD DOWNS | West Virginia converted just 5 of 14 third downs, while Alabama converted 9 of 16.

“You’ve got to give Coach [Lane] Kiffin some credit,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve got playmakers on offense. They’ve got guys that can break tackles; they’ve got guys that can make catches in very, very tight situations.

“We had chances to be able to put ourselves in position to stay out there [on offense]. I thought we did a good job of that in the first half. … The other issue was being able to score touchdowns in the score zone.”

West Virginia settled for four field-goal attempts, making three, and “at some point you’ve got to be able to convert those into touchdowns.”

• SECONDARY | Safety Dravon Henry made his first start and was the lone freshman to see the field, I believe. He didn’t stick out too much, which is a good sign, thought I do recall a pass interference call downfield on No. 6.

Karl Joseph registered a career-high 18 tackles. Daryl Worley intercepted a pass early in the fourth quarter and rumbled all the way down to the Alabama 25 before a penalty brought it back to the 49 and the drive went three-and-out.

“I was proud about what Daryl did,” Holgorsen said. “Daryl missed a couple tackles early but then came back and really played well, I thought. Them two kids are going to continue to improve, there’s no doubt.”  

• DEFENSIVE FRONT | The defense was laboring in the second half, that’s pretty clear. Blake Sims had all day, being sacked a grand total of zero times, and his running backs did a serious number on the Mountaineers.

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 239 yards and three touchdowns, while Sims scampered for 42 yards on his own.

I’ll have more thoughts and quotes up once I’ve gotten back to the hotel and compiled everything. Fire away with your thoughts at @stephenjnesbitt or comment below.

The fact is, West Virginia had a few chances to win tonight, and that will haunt them — a missed field goal, settling for field goals after dropped passes on the goal line, not taking advantage of the field position after Worley's interception. But, hey, that was a good football team that lost tonight, and if it sticks around this gauntlet of a 2014 schedule should be a lot of fun.

My takeaway, though, is that this was an inspired effort from a truly talented West Virginia side. Maybe I, like the rest of the nation, shouldn’t have been caught so surprised.

(Oh, and I have no idea what happened on that unsportsmanlike conduct call, either.)

Stephen J. Nesbitt: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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