MORGANTOWN — Clint Trickett set a career high in passing yards — for a second straight game — and looked like the player his coaches and teammates spoke so glowingly about throughout a month of preseason practices.
The West Virginia quarterback led the offense down the field a few times against one of college football’s best defenses Saturday, and did it sometimes with a pace that gave Alabama problems. He threw deep and short passes, he threw tight and touch passes, and he never once winced in a way that made observers question the stability of his surgically repaired throwing shoulder.
Trickett was not perfect. He missed open receivers for first downs and touchdowns and he checked down to a running back on fourth-and-12 on WVU’s final play of the game. Yet he was far from the 2013 version and free of many of the variables that contributed to his 2-5 record as the starter.
The implication seemed obvious: It’s time to start looking differently at this quarterback and, by extension, this offense.
“No. We lost,” Trickett said. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to give me a break until I actually win some games. I fully accept that.”
Self-denigration aside, that version of Trickett forces skeptics to return to the conversation. He was 29 for 45 for 365 yards and a touchdown. He keyed drives that covered 51, 66, 75 and 79 yards. He moved the offense inside the red zone three times. Afterward, coach Dana Holgorsen confessed he was intrigued by “moving the ball against a really good defense.”
A 27-point spread in favor of the Crimson Tide suggested few thought WVU could do that, but at the end, the offense had 393 yards. It was the most by an opponent in coach Nick Saban’s eight season openers with Alabama and better than what 10 teams managed last season. Trickett’s passing yardage was the second-highest total by a Saban opponent at Alabama.
“They’re as good as it gets out there defensively schematically, personnel-wise, coaching-wise, all that stuff,” Holgorsen said. “Moved the ball. Had opportunities to continue to move the ball.”
WVU also had enough blunders to keep the team grounded and probably even angry this week. The Mountaineers play host to the Football Championship Subdivision’s Towson (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised by Root Sports.
What the Mountaineers have to work on would still seem to be outnumbered by what they could feel good or certain about following the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, most notably having one quarterback after starting three last season.
Trickett, though, was the plan all along in the offseason and WVU named him the starter June 24.
“We pulled the trigger on him because we thought he was our best option and it was time to create some chemistry with that group,” WVU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson said. “It’s like we’ve been saying. It’s a whole different deal once you’ve had a calendar year, which he has now. Not that he played perfect by any stretch, but he played better and he gave us a chance to win.”
The offense was able to go deep into its repertoire and remain aggressive. There were screens and slants and streaks and Trickett completed all those throws. The first play saw two running backs motion out to join three receivers, and the Mountaineers would go back to that a few times. WVU would also use three and four receivers, but also a tight end at the end of the line of scrimmage and in the slot.
When the Mountaineers needed a drive to give the defense a rest and go to work on a 10-point deficit, Holgorsen called on his three-back diamond set, and Trickett widened eyes with a pass to fullback Eli Wellman — and those two nearly connected a second time on the goal line in the fourth quarter.
This surprised many, but not everyone. Despite their problems at quarterback last season, WVU was still No. 34 nationally in passing yards per game and figures to benefit from stability at that position with an improved starter.
“Clint is a completely quarterback than he was last year,” West Virginia receiver Jordan Thompson said. “People are basing our team off of what we were last year. We were inexperienced last year. Everybody now has a year under their belts. We’re healthier, stronger, faster, a little bigger, but most of all we’re more experienced, and Clint’s the No. 1 difference.”
Most impressive and most important, though, was the tempo offense that was largely absent last season. WVU went fast on its first drive and snapped 14 times for 79 yards. It would choose its spots later and generally like the results.
“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 sideline without having to scream it at him or call timeout,” Holgorsen said.
WVU had a healthy rhythm on just about all its drives and didn’t have a three-and-out until the first of two in a row to end the game. The coaches were pleased with Trickett’s decisions to pick run or pass at the line and that he completed passes to seven players. Two others dropped the only ball thrown their way.
“The first game of the year, there are always going to be question marks, but we were really confident in ourselves and we said, ‘Hey, no matter what, we’re going to be able to move on these guys,” Trickett said. “We have the weapons around us and they’re going to continue to make plays for us.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.