MOrGANTOWN — If nothing else, there was confidence in the air when West Virginia took the field against Alabama Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
In fact, there may have been cockiness as the Mountaineers prepared to take on the No. 2 Crimson Tide. When the teams first took the field as full units about 30 minutes before kickoff, a group of WVU players charged to the 50-yard line — as players these days are wont to do — in an effort to get Alabama’s attention.
The Tide players ignored them, which is what disciplined teams do.
But there was more than just cockiness in the Mountaineers. They seemed entirely bought in to the idea that if they weren’t Alabama’s equal, they could at least compete on the same level.
And four hours later, after losing 33-23, they’d really done nothing to indicate they weren’t right about that.
“I thought we played really well tonight, just not good enough to win,’’ said quarterback Clint Trickett. “That’s the bottom line. A lot of people were probably surprised by how well we played, but we weren’t. We had a lot of confidence heading into this game.
“We even did a good job responding to adversity. We just didn’t capitalize when we had the opportunities.’’
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Where West Virginia failed most was where the Mountaineers also struggled mightily a year ago — third downs.
The offense wasn’t good (5 of 14 on third downs), but it did manage to convert four on drives that ended with scores. But the defense was awful. Alabama not only converted 9 of 16 third downs, the Tide made first downs on third-and-11 and third-and-13, each leading to a touchdown that could have been prevented with that one stop.
Even worse, perhaps, was this: Even the seven third downs Alabama failed to convert didn’t turn out that badly. Three were turned into fourth-down field goals and a fourth resulted in a first down after the failed conversion attempt because of a dead ball unsportsmanlike penalty on WVU. That meant the Tide’s only truly unproductive possessions ended in two punts, a failed fourth down and an interception.
“Yeah, you’ve got to give [Alabama] some credit. They’ve got playmakers on offense. They’ve got guys that can break tackles,’’ WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They’ve got guys that can make catches in very, very tight situations. Those guys are pretty good.
“It’s the same thing offensively. We had chances to be able to put ourselves in position to stay out there. I thought we did a good job of that in the first half. I don’t think offensively in the second half we did a good job of executing on third downs, and that was a big issue with us last year.’’
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Another big offensive issue last year was finishing drives, which didn’t happen enough against Alabama. The offense had 10 possessions (Mario Alford’s kickoff return touchdown doesn’t count as one) and four times got into the red zone. WVU got four scores, but three were field goals.
Alabama, by contrast, got three touchdowns and a field goal in its four red-zone trips.
“I thought we did a good job of moving the ball in the open field, but at some point you’ve got to be able to convert those into touchdowns,’’ Holgorsen said. “We didn’t do a very good job of that. Whether that was play calls or whatever it was, we’ll look at it and we’ll get better because of it.’’
In all, West Virginia was in Alabama territory on seven of those 10 possessions, but scored only the three field goals and one touchdown.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @dphickman1 on Twitter.