MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Given that West Virginia lost to No. 2 Alabama by 10 points and made obvious errors to affect scoring situations, a case could be made the Mountaineers were just a few plays shy of a different outcome.
Receivers Jordan Thompson and Shelton Gibson dropped third-down passes that would have given the offense first downs inside Alabama’s 20-yard line. Clint Trickett threw a bad pass to fullback Eli Wellman, who would have walked into the end zone. Gibson’s drop brought kicker Josh Lambert onto the field and Lambert missed a 47-yard field goal, though WVU says it was tipped.
The Mountaineers play with a three-sided ball, though, and the defense was far from free of guilt. They left six sacks and five fruitless blitzes on the artificial turf at the Georgia Dome.
“We were 0-for-6,” WVU defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tony Gibson said. “We could have made six plays and changed that game. We could have made one play and changed that game.”
Instead of taking a down and yardage from Alabama or creating a turnover and maybe even a scoring opportunity, the Mountaineers let the Crimson Tide avoid losses or move the ball. The six misses came on separate drives and Alabama ended three drives with a touchdown and one with a field goal.
“Pass rush issues still exist,” fourth-year West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.
WVU (0-1) looks to fix that sooner rather than later beginning with Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home opener against Towson (0-1) at Mountaineer Field. The game will be televised by Root Sports.
The Tigers are working with five new starters on the offensive line who before last week’s home loss to Central Connecticut State had a combined two career starts — both belonging to guard Jake Schunke. Three of the starters will be in their second career game.
The Mountaineers, though, finished with no sacks against Alabama. That’s 10th time that’s happened in Holgorsen’s 39 games. It happened half as many times in the 39 games before that. WVU was one of only 18 teams to go without a sack last week, a bad start for a team that finished tied for No. 107 out of 123 FBS teams last season with 1.33 sacks per game.
“I view them as better schematically with getting guys there free.” Holgorsen said. “You have to pull the trigger. We had some guys who just missed.”
They did find ways to spring blitzers and create chances, but missed each one — though not without some explanations. The Mountaineers didn’t know Alabama quarterback Blake Sims would be as quick and slippery as he was. What they saw of him on film was mostly handoffs at the end of blowout wins the past two seasons. What they saw in person was entirely different.
That it happened in the first game was a part of the problem, too. WVU abided by a Big 12 recommendation to tackle on 12 days in preseason camp, though teams don’t do much more than that ordinarily because they want to keep players fresh, safe and healthy.On days when teams do tackle in practice, the quarterback is almost always off limits.
That created a problem on top of the one Sims presented.
“It’s the speed of the game,” Holgorsen said. “We didn’t turn our guys loose on blitzes to knock our quarterbacks out during practice. That’s just something that you can’t duplicate.”
It nevertheless proved costly. Linebacker Wes Tonkery sped unblocked through the middle on a first down at Alabama’s 27-yard line in the first quarter, but missed and Sims threw the ball out of bounds. Alabama scored a touchdown on the drive for a 10-3 lead.
WVU had Alabama back at its 12 in the second quarter and defensive end Dontrill Hyman slipped around the corner and ran past Sims, who’d dropped to near his goal line. WVU thought Hyman could have forced a fumble or gotten a safety, but Sims ran for 2 yards on first down. Alabama’s touchdown 12 plays later built a 17-10 lead.
“He’s got to aim at the outside shoulder,” WVU defensive ends coach Damon Cogdell said. “He was aiming at the inside shoulder. He just needs to have a better approach. That’s all it was.”
There were several miscues in the third quarter. The first came when safety Karl Joseph, who missed with K.J. Dillon, but forced an incomplete pass, in the second quarter, had a hold of Sims, but let him step out. Sims ran for six yards, and though Alabama would later turn the ball over on downs, the scramble led to linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski getting leveled on a blindside block.
Cornerback Travis Bell blitzed from the left on first down at Alabama’s 30 in the same quarter and Sims didn’t see Bell until the last moment. Sims flinched at his 22 and avoided a big bit, a fumble and perhaps a fumble return to complete a 13-yard pass. Alabama scored another touchdown five plays later for a 27-20 lead.
The last miss was the most important. On third-and-9 late in the quarter, Dillon blitzed from where Bell had blitzed and at least forced Sims to scramble out of bounds for a 5-yard gain. Had Dillon made the play, though, Sims would have never made it to the sideline, where he ran into linebacker Sean Walters and drew the dubious, game-changing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Alabama stayed on the field and kicked a field goal four plays later for a 30-20 lead.
“They knew it when it happened,” WVU safeties coach JoeDeForest said. “We practiced it all camp and knew what we were going to do, and it worked, except where to aim. You get into the heat of the battle and get excited and it’s, ‘Ball!’ But it’s something you’ve got to do. You’ve got to do your job. It wasn’t for a lack of effort or a lack of understanding. It was a lack of concentration within that moment.”
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.