ATLANTA —It wasn’t the blowout that many had predicted, but for West Virginia Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, there were no moral victories.
The Mountaineers (0-1) flirted with an upset of monumental proportions, taking No. 2 Alabama to the wire. But a couple of critical mistakes turned a potential shocker into another disappointment for a team that had plenty of them in a 4-8 season a year ago as the Crimson Tide (1-0) escaped with a 33-23 victory to avoid a rare three-game losing streak.
“We played hard, and we put ourselves in positions to win, which was obviously our goal,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “But we didn’t achieve our goal when it comes to finishing the game and getting a victory. That’s why you play the game.”
WVU had its chances. Midway through the final quarter, in fact, the nation was still on upset alert after Josh Lambert nailed a 41-yard field goal to pull the Mountaineers within a single score at 30-23 with 13:37 to play. Neither team scored again for more than 5 minutes.
But when Adam Griffith nailed his fourth field goal of the day — he was a perfect 4 for 4 on the afternoon — to put the Tide up 10 with less than five minutes on the clock, the Morgantown fire department was taken off of high alert.
One final drive for WVU stalled when quarterback Clint Trickett was sacked, and Alabama ran out the clock with its power running game, which amassed 288 yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry against a rebuilt Mountaineer defense.
“I was really pleased with the way we controlled the ball on offense,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a West Virginia native who grew up a Mountaineer fan. “(We did) a good job on third down, good balance between run and pass.
“I’m proud of the way our team competed. I thought they made plays when they needed to make them.”
Stopping the run wasn’t the only problem for new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s group. The WVU defense — much maligned the past two seasons — gave up 538 total yards, and, more importantly, the bulk of them when it mattered most.
Alabama was able to convert 9 of 16 third-down attempts and scored every time it entered the red zone, three of the four trips ending in touchdowns.
“They played their game,” said Gibson. “They ate a lot of clock up. We didn’t give up any cheap ones, and we made them earn it. But it’s disappointing. Our kids are hurting. We played hard, but we didn’t always play smart.
“They wore us down. Offensively, we did a great job, so we’ll take this one on us. We couldn’t stop them when we needed to.”
There were plenty of positives, though, for a WVU team that led 3-0 early and had the game tied on two other occasions, despite being 26-point underdogs entering the game.
Senior quarterback Clint Trickett, healthy after offseason shoulder surgery, threw for 365 yards and a touchdown and made few mistakes for a Mountaineer squad that didn’t have a single turnover.
He had a sure target in Kevin White, who caught nine passes for 143 yards, including a pair that are sure to make the highlight film at the end of the season. Wendell Smallwood caught six balls, and Jordan Thompson and Mario Alford grabbed five each as seven different receivers got in on the action.
The highlight of the day for WVU actually came on special teams when Alford returned a kickoff 100 yards — a Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game record — to answer an Alabama score and tie the game at 17-all just 1:43 before halftime.
“It was exciting,” said Alford of the electrifying return. “The atmosphere was crazy.
“Once I made that first guy miss, I saw a lane on the outside, so I took it. Once I got past everybody else, I knew it was the home stretch for me.”
What will surely be the focus of practice leading up to Saturday’s home opener against Towson — last year’s Football Championship subdivision runner-up — were the mistakes in critical situations.
WVU got a touchdown on just one of its three trips to the red zone.
A fourth-quarter drive down to the Alabama 5-yard line stalled out when Trickett missed a wide open Elijah Welman for a sure touchdown on first down and then saw the ball snapped over his head on third down. WVU — which could have cut the lead to 3 with a touchdown — had to settle for a field goal.
The opening drive of the game also saw the Mountaineers settle for a 3-pointer after driving 79 yards to the Alabama 3-yard line, and a missed Lambert field goal from 47 yards away in the third quarter took possible points off the board.
On defense, the play that will long be talked about in the Mountain State came late in the third quarter.
Trailing 27-20, WVU looked as though it had made a stop and would get the ball back for a potential game-tying drive when Alabama quarterback Blake Sims was knocked out of bounds on third down short of the chains. A controversial unsportsmanlike flag on Sean Walters, though, kept the drive alive, and the Tide converted a 27-yard field goal later in the drive to get a little breathing room.
“There were some bad calls when things got tight,” said Holgorsen. “There were some missed blocks when things got tight. There were some missed tackles when things got tight. There were some bad kicks when things got tight.
“When you’re playing a very good team and things are going to be tight, you’ve got to be able to execute.”
Alabama, though, had plenty of offensive firepower without the Mountaineers’ help. The Tide had a pair of backs — T.J. Yeldon (132) and Derrick Henry (113)— top the century mark on the ground, and senior Blake Sims, making his first start was extremely efficient, completing 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards and only one interception — a fourth-quarter pick into the hands of Daryl Worley.
“I didn’t think about it too much,” said Sims of his first start. “I just went out there and played.
“(Coach Saban) told me to play with composure. I told him when it comes time, I’ll be ready.”
Amari Cooper was Sims’ favorite target, catching 12 passes for 130 yards.
Alabama will be back in action next Saturday at noon when it hosts Florida Atlantic. WVU’s Saturday contest is scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.