ATLANTA — It wasn’t easy to learn much about the Mountaineers from the 30 minute stretches of practice the media was allowed to view in the offseason, so all we could do was listen to the interviews and study the numbers. But after four quarters against the No. 2 team in the country, there’s more than enough of a sample to make some early judgments about the 2014 West Virginia football team.
So what did we learn from WVU 33-23 loss to Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Saturday?
Here’s a look at five early impressions with a quick disclaimer that one week does not a season make.
1) WVU’s offense is better — This one probably goes without saying. WVU scored 23 points and racked up 393 yards of offense against an Alabama defense that is perennially considered one of the best in college football.
The passing numbers — 365 yards through the air — obviously stand out as WVU struggled on the ground with just 28 yards on 24 carries.
But those numbers were a little deceiving. WVU’s short passing game often serves as its running game when opposing defenses stack the box, as Alabama did early in Saturday’s game. Instead of running the ball between the tackles, the Mountaineers try to get the ball to their backs and slot receivers on the edge, and they were effective in that approach.
Even when it comes to the pure ground game, Rushel Shell showed some promise, and I expect him to be productive against teams not named Alabama.
Don’t believe me? Ask Nick Saban.
“That Shell, that guy is a good runner, and you’re going to know it before the end of this year is over,” said the legendary Crimson Tide coach.
WVU has plenty on which it can build from an offensive perspective.
2) The Mountaineers still believe — All the numbers are out there. WVU was coming off a 4-8 season that included losses to Kansas and Iowa State, teams that wouldn’t be considered contenders in any conference. But the Mountaineers took the field against Alabama on Saturday believing they could win the game.
WVU played with energy and confidence and answered almost every time the Tide seemed to be rolling and gaining momentum. Against a team with the history that Alabama has, that doesn’t always happen. But the Mountaineers, even upset in defeat, clearly believe that this season can be different.
“Our guys are pretty confident,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “We think we can move the ball. We’ve got to score points, which is obvious, but we’re only going to grow from here. We can build on some things.”
3) The defense still has questions — When a unit gives up 538 yards of offense and allows opponents to convert 9 of 16 third downs, many of them of the long variety, it’s difficult to find a silver lining.
The defense has obviously been WVU’s biggest weakness during Dana Holgorsen’s tenure in Morgantown, and despite some increased talent and depth on that side of the ball, it’s difficult to make the judgement that anything’s changed.
The good news for Mountaineer fans is that new coordinator Tony Gibson said he saw some fight in his guys, and he’s anxious to get back to work to correct the mistakes.
“Your biggest improvement is usually from week 1 to week 2,” said the Van native. “I told our defense, don’t get your feelings hurt in the film session, because you’re going to get coached. We’re going to correct their mistakes and get better. But the one thing that stood out in my mind is that we had a lot of guys that played hard.”
4) Clint Trickett is a different guy when he’s healthy — Trickett looked calm in the pocket, he managed the game well and he seemed to be in control from start to finish. Had it not been for a few dropped balls, his numbers — 29 of 45 for 365 yards and a touchdown — would have looked even better.
If Trickett can stay healthy — and he said after the game that he had no issues with his shoulder — his senior year could be a memorable one. He showed his ability in last year’s upset over Oklahoma State, and he did it again in the near-upset of the Tide on Saturday.
5) WVU has playmakers — Much of the concern in 2013 surrounded WVU’s lack of a Tavon Austin or Pat White — a guy who can make a big play when the offense needs it most. The Mountaineers just didn’t have that guy to go to in critical situations a year ago.
The season’s only one week old, but that seems to have changed.
Kevin White showed the potential of an NFL wide receiver who can go up and get the ball, even over some of the top defensive backs in college football, and Jordan Thompson displayed signs that he’s ready to shake off the unflattering label of the best spring game player in history and do the same things when it counts.
And Mario Alford? He looked a little like Austin when he was sprinting past Alabama players on his way to a 100-yard kickoff return.
WVU’s players and coaches said repeatedly after Saturday’s game that they aren’t into moral victories, but if nothing else, they gave fans a reason to believe again with their performance against the Tide.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH