ATLANTA — Up until one momentous, prolonged and ultimately decisive sequence Saturday, West Virginia withstood Alabama and many of the challenges that come with opening the season in a neutral-site game that feels a little like a road game against the nation’s No. 2-ranked team.
It was the trouble the Mountaineers brought on themselves that would cost them so dearly.
They bobbled important possessions inside the Alabama 30-yard line in the third and fourth quarters with poor plays by quarterbacks and receivers and couldn’t keep up with the Crimson Tide’s rising wave of offense. Alabama capitalized to come away with a 33-23 win in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game before 70,502 inside the Georgia Dome.
“We’ve got to be better in critical situations, especially against a really good football team,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “You can’t miss opportunities like that and win. Everybody chipped in. Those critical downs keep drives alive and get you points, and at the end we failed in those critical situations.”
Within three straight drives bridging the third and fourth quarters, the Mountaineers had 10 plays inside the Alabama 30 — three at the 5 — and came away with 3 yards and 6 points. The Tide followed the first two drives with a touchdown and a field goal for a 30-20 lead.
“Probably the difference in the game for us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
T.J. Yeldon had 126 yards and two touchdowns and teammate Derrick Henry added 113 yards and a score as Alabama (1-0) had 288 yards rushing and 538 yards of offense. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims made his first career start and played the whole game at quarterback, completing 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards. Amari Cooper caught 12 passes for 130 yards.
Alabama was 9 for 16 on third down and had three touchdowns and a field goal in its four red-zone possessions. Alabama had 82 plays to WVU’s 69 and held onto the ball for 37:47.
“Very frustrating,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, whose debut in charge of the defense coincided with WVU’s first season-opening loss since 2003. “I threw everything I could at them. We blitzed. We played man. We played zone. We dropped eight. We brought five. I was trying—everything we had on the call sheet and we just didn’t execute.”
WVU’s Clint Trickett passed for a career-high 365 yards and completed 29 of 45 passes. Kevin White caught nine passes for 143 yards and a score and running back Wendell Smallwood caught six passes for 73 yards. The Mountaineers had only 28 yards rushing on 24 attempts — 20 yards were lost on sacks and a bad snap — and were 5 for 14 on third down with one touchdown and two field goals in three red-zone possessions.
“You play against a really good team and you’re in position in the fourth quarter to be able to win the game, you don’t have those opportunities very often,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said.
The Mountaineers (0-1) looked worthy, though, and scored to start the game and then scored to tie it after trailing 10-3 and 17-10. They even got Alabama to turn the ball over on downs to start the second half after the Tide squeezed in a field goal to end the first half ahead 20-17.
But once Trickett scrambled 14 yards and then connected with White for a 26-yard gain to Alabama’s 25-yard line, it all started to go badly.
Trickett hurried a throw under pressure and lost a down and nine yards on an intentional grounding penalty before Shelton Gibson dropped a pass at the sticks on third-and-15. That led to a Josh Lambert field-goal attempt, but he pulled his kick to the left.
Alabama followed Henry to a touchdown as he ran for 12, 13 and finally 19 yards into the end zone on a six-play, 70-yard drive.
The Mountaineers moved again with completions to Rushel Shell for 19 yards, Jordan Thompson for 12 and White for 13, but fizzled again. On second-and-8 at Alabama’s 25, Trickett threw well behind the uncovered White as he swept across the field. On third down, Thompson dropped a pass that would have again been a first down. This time, Lambert made a 42-yard field goal.
Alabama got points again, but got some help, too, with a curious penalty against the Mountaineers. Sims scrambled right on third-and-9 and gained 5 yards before running out of bounds at WVU’s 42 on the WVU sideline. A penalty marker appeared and the Mountaineers were called for unsportsmanlike conduct, with reserve linebacker Sean Walters, who didn’t play a single snap, getting the blame. Alabama moved 15 yards closer to a 27-yard field goal for a 30-20 lead.
“Our kids said we tried to catch (Sims),” Gibson said. “But that was big. It gave them three more points when we were within a sore. We hadn’t stopped them and we finally thought we had them stopped.”
The offense answered once more and had first-and-goal at the 5, but Trickett threw short of an open Eli Wellman, who reached and couldn’t hang onto the ball. A fade pass to White was defended in the corner of the end zone and the third-down snap went over Trickett’s head. He had to fall on it at the 24 and Lambert converted again from 41 yards to make it 30-23.
The game’s first turnover followed as Sims was intercepted near midfield by WVU’s Daryl Worley, who returned the ball to the 41. WVU was called for holding on the return, which moved the ball back to its 49, and the Mountaineers could do nothing with a chance to tie the score early to start the fourth quarter.
Alabama followed with a 45-yard field goal for a 33-23 lead.
WVU established itself and its offense from the start. The first snap of the game saw two running backs motion out to join three receivers on a pass play. Shell then carried three times for 20 yards and the defense literally slipped when a cornerback fell and White took a short pass for 29 yards to the Alabama 30. White’s third reception of the drive moved the ball to the 6, but a fade route to Alford on third down missed and the Mountaineers settled for Lambert’s 20-yard field goal.
The Tide’s first play was a 24-yard gain and they were in WVU territory after three snaps, but Sims threw short to an open Cooper on third-and-4 before a 47-yard field goal.
WVU had to punt and got help from a penalty to pin Alabama back to its 5, but the offense snapped the ball 14 times and methodically covered the 95 yards in 6:57. The final four plays of the drive covered 15, 3, 22 and 15 yards.
Down 10-3, the Mountaineers were in a dangerous spot with an offense that had been idle for a long time and had succeeded early by playing fast, but now had to protect a defense that needed a break. Trickett and Alford connected for a 15-yard gain on third-and-5, thanks to a block outside by Thompson, and a play-action pass to Wellman gained 10 yards on third-and-2 to move to Alabama’s 23. Two plays later, White jumped over his cornerback for a 19-yard touchdown.
The Tide went three-and-out, but WVU dropped passes on second and third down to punt it back. Alabama converted three third downs, including a 38-yard gain on a short throw to DeAndrew White where cornerbacks Keishawn Richardson, Terrell Chestnut, Brandon Napoleon and Worley missed tackles in the middle of the field before White got the first down. Yeldon scored two plays later on a 1-yard run.
“That play right there broke our backs,” Gibson said. “We had all the momentum and we just couldn’t make the play.”
WVU was again in a challenging situation down 17-10 with 1:57 to go, but Alford returned the kickoff up the right sideline 100 yards for a touchdown and a game record. That left the defense with 1:43 left before halftime. Sims scrambled for 21 yards to the WVU 49 on third-and-2, which made Alabama 7-for-9 on third down. He then completed quick passes for 14, 3 and 8 yards to set up a 41-yard field go to take the head into halftime.
“I thought this game was going to be exactly like what it was,” Saban said. “I really thought West Virginia had a lot better team than anybody thought, and what you all do, which I love you for doing it, is create perceptions. Your perception is we’re really good and they’re not so good, so we’re going to come into this game and everybody thinks it’s going to be a one-sided, lopsided game, and I never thought that at all.”