ATLANTA — Let’s answer one question quickly and get this out of the way.
Yes, West Virginia scored a moral victory on Saturday in its 33-23 loss to No. 2 Alabama at the Georgia Dome.
The Mountaineers were led to the Dome as a sacrificial lamb, placed on national television and played before a stadium crowd of 70,502, fifth-largest in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game history.
Yet the lamb had a little bite.
This was nothing like 1994, when WVU was likewise led to one of these deals. The Mountaineers went to the Meadowlands that year and were scorched by Nebraska 31-0.
That was embarrassing for the program. Saturday’s decision was not.
Saturday’s Mountaineer performance, in fact, showed a few things.
First, it showed the players on this team have worked to improve. And improve they have.
Second, it showed head coach Dana Holgorsen has handled them well in the offseason. The Mountaineers entered the game confident, as they used to be in games of this ilk.
It showed Holgorsen still has a few offensive tricks up his sleeve.
Also, it showed Tony Gibson and Tom Bradley have made headway with the defense.
What we also saw, though, is what we mostly knew. The difference between teams like West Virginia and teams like Alabama is the latter do better recruiting hosses along the lines. Monongah native Nick Saban knows how to optimize that advantage.
Understand that Saturday’s game had an almost Sugar Bowl-like atmosphere in the couple days leading to it. There were fan parties starting on Thursday. The Dome was packed Saturday. The place was rocking.
In order to duplicate a performance like the Mountaineers’ against Georgia in a real Sugar Bowl, though, you have to pop when it counts.
WVU came up short in that department and it hurt.
“You have to make critical plays in critical situations,” Holgorsen said. “You have to make critical calls in critical situations.”
When the game was tied at 10, the Mountaineers had Alabama in a third-and-13 situation. You could feel the tension in the cooled air here. It came at the 3:15 mark. Was an upset in the making?
It was then that the Crimson Tide’s DeAndrew White made a statement. He caught the ball right, 10 yards behind the first down. He then made a Major Harris-like run through the Mountaineer secondary. Thirty-eight yards later, Alabama had a first-and-goal at the 8.
In the first half, Alabama converted seven third downs. That one, however, was the most damaging.
WVU was hanging in there though. The world saw the speed of Mario Alford, who took back a kickoff 100 yards. Carl Lewis had to be jealous.
Yet, in the third quarter, WVU started to sag. QB Clint Trickett was called for grounding. Shelton Gibson dropped one put on the numbers.
Yet Josh Lambert trotted on the field. Could he hit one from 47 yards? Would he give his team that lift?
Unfortunately for the underdogs, the answer was no.
“When things are going to be tight,” Holgorsen said, “you’ve got to execute.”
Yep. In the third quarter, WVU’s tiring defense seemed to come up with a nice stop when it took down Alabama QB Blake Sims short of the sticks.
But the Mountaineers were called for an unsportsmanlike penalty after Sims ran into the WVU sideline. The best explanation I could find is either Andrew Buie or Sean Walters, one of the No. 13 players, put up their hands to slow or stop Sims, pushed him down and was called for it.
Whatever happened, it was another downer for the Mountaineers at a bad spot.
The killer for WVU, though, was when the game was still in doubt at 30-20. Squirt Thompson had made an acrobatic catch against DB Bradley Sylve. Trickett moved right and connected with Kevin White for 25.
Then, bearing down at Alabama’s 5-yard line, center Tyler Orlosky fired a snap over the head of Trickett on third down. It led to a field goal instead of a touchdown.
Terrific plays were made by WVU players, like Daryl Worley’s interception. But terrific plays were wasted, like Daryl Worley’s interception.
We saw improvement, though, from WVU. There’s no question about that. Saban said the Mountaineer defense is improved. He pointed to tailback Rushel Shell.
As I wrote last week, West Virginia has more talented players this season. It will surprise some in the Big 12.
Yes, there remain concerns. WVU has to find a pass rush. It has to be able to stop power running games like that of the Tide, which had 288 ground yards.
On Saturday, though, WVU was set up to be a sacrificial lamb.
Yet it did anything but get slaughtered.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.