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Chuck McGill: Opener shows how far WVU has come

West Virginia’s Mario Alford returns a kick for a touchdown Saturday against Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

ATLANTA ­— It wasn’t all peachy during West Virginia’s visit to Georgia.

There were ill-timed drops, off-the-mark throws, a defense that allowed 500-plus yards of offense for the eighth time under fourth-year football coach Dana Holgorsen and one unfathomable unsportsmanlike penalty call that reshaped the course of an Alabama drive.

But even though WVU had two first-and-goal situations stall for field goals instead of touchdowns, even though the second-ranked Crimson Tide had a pair of 100-yard rushers and a 100-yard receiver, there’s plenty of reason to believe this Mountaineers’ team is ripe for a better, more competitive season.

In fact, let’s start with the score. A regular-season non-conference opponent hadn’t played Alabama that close in five seasons, a span of 20 games. The last time was also here in the Georgia Dome, a 34-24 Crimson Tide win over the Virginia Tech Hokies in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

That VT team was ranked fifth, though, as opposed to the unranked Mountaineers who played here Saturday in front of a crowd of 70,502.

In the past five seasons, Alabama has dominated its non-conference regular-season schedule. The Crimson Tide won by an average of 35.3 points in 2009, 36.0 points in 2010, 30.5 points in 2011, 42.8 points in 2012 and 31.8 points last season.

The oddsmakers had WVU destined to not alter those averages too much with a four-touchdown spread in favor of coach Nick Saban and Alabama, but the Mountaineers trailed by single digits and had the ball on the Crimson Tide’s side of the field with a chance for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“I thought this game was going to be exactly like it was,” Saban said. “I really thought West Virginia had a lot better team than anybody thought, and like you all do, which I love you for doing it, is you create perceptions ... so your perception is we’re really good and they’re not so good, so we’re going to come into this game and everybody’s expectation is it’s going to be a one-sided, lopsided game. I never thought that at all.”

Saban, however, couldn’t have thought the skinny quarterback his daughter once kissed, Clint Trickett, would pile up the third-most passing yards against a Saban-coached defense since he became LSU’s coach in 2000. Trickett completed 29 passes in 42 attempts for a career-best 365 yards against Alabama, which was No. 5 nationally in total defense last season.

The only quarterbacks with better passing days against a Saban defense in the past 15 years are Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (464 yards last season) and Florida’s Rex Grossman (464 yards vs. LSU in 2001).

“My comfort level was obviously better than it’s been,” Holgorsen said of his senior quarterback. “It’s nice to be able to signal things once and be able to communicate with him as far as what we’re wanting on the sidelines without having to scream at him or call timeout.”

If that made him comfortable, this had to make him squirm. WVU twice marched inside the 10 for first-and-goal situations but left with six combined points instead of 14. On the first trip, on the opening drive of the game, Trickett found receiver Kevin White for a 13-yard gain to the 6, but three plays and three yards later, the Mountaineers settled for a chip-shot field goal.

A similar scenario presented itself in the third quarter after another long Trickett-to-White pitch-and-catch. After a 25-yard gain by White got WVU to the 5-yard line, Trickett underthrew freshman Eli Wellman in the right flat and Wellman couldn’t corral the ball for a sure touchdown that would’ve pulled the Mountaineers within three points.

The next play was a incomplete fade pass to White followed by a snap over Trickett’s head on third down that pushed West Virginia back 19 yards.

Two drives, six plays inside the 10, minus-16 yards and a total of eight points left on the field with the miscues.

Trickett was victimized by drops on consecutive drives in the third quarter. Shelton Gibson couldn’t haul in a pass beyond the sticks on third down and kicker Josh Lambert pushed a field goal wide on the next play. Jordan Thompson dropped a ball on third down on the next drive and WVU settled for a field goal.

The Mountaineers made it to Alabama’s 25 on those two third-quarter drives, but managed only three points.

And while Trickett and White had career days — White hauled in the most catches (nine) and receiving yards (143) of his WVU career ­— the running game sputtered to 28 yards on 24 carries (1.2 yards per rushing attempt).

“I guess that’s not very good,” Holgorsen said.

No, but there’s little to sulk over here as the Mountaineers look to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2013.

Saban only saw West Virginia on film last season, but this team looks like a better team to him.

“They scored a lot of points on a lot of people last year and they struggled defensively,” Saban said. “I do think they’re a little better defensively than they were a year ago, and I think they can be just as good or better on offense because I think they have the right people in the right places.”

Don’t tell that to Holgorsen, who is on a four-game losing streak for the second time of his WVU career. He’s not into moral victories, even against a program that has three national championships in the past five seasons and six consecutive 10-win seasons.

“We don’t want pats on the back,” Holgorsen said.

Fair enough. But this Saban guy knows a little about football, and he knows what can be gleaned from the season opener.

“What you find out in the first game is where you are,” Saban said.

WVU looks to be in a far better place than a year ago.

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