ATLANTA — A lot of things could have happened to West Virginia’s football team Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, and by all rights more of them were bad than good.
A four-touchdown underdog to the nation’s preeminent program of the past five years, there was at least some fear that a team coming off a 4-8 season might be outclassed.
A funny thing happened, though, in front of a crowd of 70,502 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. No, West Virginia didn’t win, but perhaps the Mountaineers came as close to a moral victory as was possible, even if they would be loath to admit it.
West Virginia stayed within 10 points of the Crimson Tide all afternoon, was within a touchdown or even tied a great deal of the time and ended up losing 33-23.
“Yeah, but we still lost,’’ quarterback Clint Trickett said. “There’s no such thing as a moral victory. I hate that.’’
True, this was no moral victory. In a sense, West Virginia didn’t play nearly as well as it could have and still stayed with Alabama almost right to the end.
Consider that the Mountaineer defense gave up 538 yards and allowed the Tide to convert nine of its 16 third downs. Those are issues that have plagued WVU for two years and appear to be problems again.
And West Virginia’s offense again had trouble finishing, settling for field goal attempts when touchdowns were needed and quite within reach. Twice WVU had first-and-goal and had to settle for field goals. On seven of the Mountaineers’ 10 possessions, they were on Alabama’s side of the field yet scored just three field goals and one touchdown on those possessions.
“At some point,’’ coach Dana Holgorsen said, “you’ve got to be able to convert those [opportunities] into touchdowns.’’
But while those negatives were significant, they were about the only ones for West Virginia, which got strong performances from quarterback Trickett, receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford and transfer tailback Rushel Shell.
That offense produced 393 yards, which isn’t exceptional, but Trickett was 29-of-45 passing for 365 yards. White caught nine passes for 143 yards. Alford had five catches and a 100-yard kickoff return. And while Shell had just 38 yards rushing, he showed flashes.
For most of the day, West Virginia had an answer to everything Alabama managed to do. Instead of folding when things started to go south, the Mountaineers responded. That was exactly what Holgorsen had hoped to see from his team, which is far more experienced than last season’s group that finished with that 4-8 record.
n After the teams traded field goals to start the game, Alabama put together a stunning march — 14 plays, 95 yards and three huge third-down conversions at the start. That gave the Tide a 10-3 lead.
But WVU countered with its own nine-play, 75-yard drive and Trickett hit White with a beautiful 19-yard pass, one for which White outdueled cornerback Bradley Sylve, to tie the score.
n When Alabama mounted another long drive and T.J. Yeldon scored to make it 17-10, Mario Alford just ran back the kickoff 100 yards and it was tied again at 17.
n In the second half, Alabama led 27-17 and 30-20, but each time West Virginia stayed within a possession with another field goal by Josh Lambert. And the Mountaineers had the ball with a perfect chance to tie in the fourth quarter when Daryl Worley intercepted a Blake Sims pass.
But after Worley’s return to the Alabama 35, WVU was penalized for holding on the return, then went three-and-out for the first time all day on offense. When Alabama answered with its fourth Adam Griffith field goal of the day with just over eight minutes to play, it was a lead that was finally too big and too late to overcome.
Again, the defense allowed a ton of yards and 33 points, which was not good. And first-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson wasn’t shy about taking the blame.
“I’ll take this one on us,’’ he said. “Our offense did what it had to do. We didn’t.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.