ATLANTA — Sunday came and went here with the West Virginia players filing in early in the morning to get whatever physical treatment was needed after Saturday’s 33-23 loss to No. 2 Alabama.
It was the mental treatment that was worrying coach Dana Holgorsen.
Four days before his fourth season started with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game before 70,502 inside the Georgia Dome, Holgorsen forecasted a forthcoming uphill battle
“I’ve said this a few times: I believe my biggest coaching challenge will be Sunday, regardless of what happens on Saturday, whether we’re successful or not,” he said. “I think the bigger coaching challenge is going to be on Sunday and getting these guys to overcome what happened, whether it’s positive or negative.”
The season-opening loss, WVU’s first since 2003, did indeed leave the team in a peculiar position. The Mountaineers did plenty of things well enough on offense, defense and even special teams, but also made enough mistakes to contribute mightily to their demise. Afterward, Holgorsen knew Sunday would be as tough as he anticipated.
“These guys are disappointed,” he said. “But in the same breath, against the No. 2 team in the country that hasn’t lost very many games, we were in position to be able to win in the fourth quarter, so hopefully they held their heads high. They understand that we were close, but we’re just not there yet.”
The Mountaineers passed for 365 yards against what is one of the nation’s best pass defenses every year, but they knew that was coming.
“Our guys were pretty confident,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “If you asked them before they game, they thought they could move the ball.”
They still left unconvinced of their qualifications. The Mountaineers threw for all those yards, but finished with fewer than 400 yards of offense because the running game netted 28 yards on 24 carries, and had only one touchdown.
Three possessions in the red zone yielded a touchdown and three field goals. WVU had six plays inside the Alabama 10-yard line and ended up with six points. Ten snaps inside the 30 in a span bridging the third and four quarters gained three yards and six points — two field goals were good, but one went wide left, which offset some of the good things in the kicking game, including Mario Alford’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown. WVU also dropped three passes on third down that could have been first downs.
WVU was No. 99 nationally last season in the percentage of red zone possessions that ended in touchdowns (52.5) and No. 114 in third down conversion percentage (31.89).
“It gives us confidence because we know we can drive on anyone, but we have to work on getting better in critical situations because that’s what got us today,” quarterback Clint Trickett said.
He was reminded of what his former coach, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, liked to remind his players: You can still play good and play bad in critical situations and lose the game.
“That happened to us,” he said.
And that’s what stung the most. The offense felt like it was built to be better this season and then showcased that with drives of 51, 66, 75 and 79 yards, but ultimately realized its shortcomings kept it from it accomplished anything.
“I don’t think this helps us that much, honestly,” said receiver Jordan Thompson, who made an odd decision to field a 62-yard punt running backward and then lost a yard to be tackled at his 6-yard line.
“We already knew what we were capable of doing. We feel like we can move the ball on anybody in college football, so going out and executing, it wasn’t a surprise. We knew we were going to have to make some plays and sometimes we didn’t make those plays and that hurt us.”
The defense left feeling the same. Those Mountaineers thought they had more players and better players and that they could prove things would be different from the start, but they ultimately gave in to Alabama’s consistent attack.
WVU played much of the game in a 3-3-5 odd stack under Tony Gibson, who is in his second season back on the staff and his first as the defensive coordinator. The group that was again near the bottom of the national rankings in total defense (454.3 yards per game) last season gave up 538 yards. Two running backs had more than 100 yards as Alabama finished with 288 and a quarterback in his first career start completed 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards.
Gibson was left to regret a number of missed tackles and missed opportunities in important spots.
“Disappointed,” Gibson said. “We did good things and bad things. I thought we would execute better as a defense and we didn’t execute the defense. We were clean on three blitzes -- came right in on him -- and never got him down.”
Alabama ended up converting 9 of 13 third downs and holding onto the ball for nearly 38 minutes.
“The one thing that’s a positive we can take out of this game is our kids believe in what we’re doing,” Gibson said. “They executed and played hard and that’s the biggest thing. When you’ve got that on your side and you get to go coach them, you know they’re going to get better.”