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ATLANTA - It wasn’t a winning performance on Saturday against the nation’s No. 2-ranked football team, but there was certainly a lot that coach Dana Holgorsen can build upon following his team’s 33-23 loss to Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
“I was proud with how we fought. We were ready to play,” said Holgorsen. “We felt like we could come in and give them a good game and put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win and when that happens you’ve got to make critical plays in critical situations. You’ve got to make critical calls in critical situations and you need to have a little bit more success than we had tonight.”
West Virginia did move the football against a defense that has historically been tough to move the ball against, the Mountaineers finishing the game with 393 total yards against an Alabama D that has held its opposition to fewer than 300 total yards 64 percent of the time under coach Nick Saban.
However, in confined spaces where the yards are much tougher to get, West Virginia once again struggled.
A key point in the game came early in the fourth quarter when the Mountaineers were trailing 30-20. Quarterback Clint Trickett
had just completed a 25-yard pass to Kevin White
, moving the ball to the Alabama 5 where it looked like WVU was going to get into the end zone to make it a three-point game.
Holgorsen’s first down play call was brilliant, but Trickett hurried his throw to a wide-open Elijah Wellman
coming out of the backfield and what looked like an easy touchdown ended up being an incomplete pass.
|Quarterback Clint Trickett completed 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards and a touchdown on Saturday against second-ranked Alabama.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Trickett’s second-down pass to White in the corner of the end zone was right on the money, but Alabama corner Cyrus Jones made a great play by knocking the ball out of White’s arms as he attempted to haul it in.
Then on third down, Tyler Orlosky
’s shotgun snap sailed over the head of Trickett and he had to scramble to fall on the football at the 24.
That’s three golden opportunities that were missed.
And there were more.
After Josh Lambert
’s field goal reduced Alabama’s lead to seven, 30-23, Daryl Worley
gave West Virginia the break it needed when he picked off Blake Sims’ pass at the Alabama 45 and his return placed the ball inside the Alabama 30.
Unfortunately, a holding penalty on Worley’s interception put the ball back at the West Virginia 49, and from there, three unsuccessful plays wiped out the Mountaineers’ momentary swing in momentum.
“It’s frustrating,” said Holgorsen. “You play against a really good team and you’re in position in the fourth quarter to be able to win the game and you don’t have those opportunities very often. We were in a very similar situation last year, week two, when we played Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. We were in that game and had a chance to win it and we didn’t.”
Indeed, last year West Virginia played toe-to-toe with the Sooners before falling 16-7. Following that game, the Mountaineers spent the entire season searching for an identity.
There were clearly enough signs on Saturday, though, to see that this is a much improved football team.
Trickett looked like a different player under center and he made some outstanding throws against a defensive front that is as good as any he will face this year. Pitt transfer Rushel Shell
ran hard with the football, especially in the first half, and Wendell Smallwood
showed outstanding ball skills as a receiver coming out of the backfield.
White’s impressive size and athletic ability were on display all afternoon and Mario Alford
showcased his game-breaking speed on his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The offensive line did a pretty decent job of protecting Trickett, who attempted 49 passes and was only sacked three times, and the offense also did a good job of taking care of the football.
On special teams, the kicking and return games were solid and the coverage units were exceptional while facing one of the most dangerous returners in the country in Christion Jones.
Defensively, safety Karl Joseph
was all over the field with 18 total tackles and Worley showed his all-around playmaking skills with 11 tackles, a tackle for a loss and the game’s only interception.
And while the defense did allow 538 total yards, it wasn’t because of blown assignments or because the Mountaineers were not lined up properly when the ball was being snapped.
“They’ve got playmakers on offense,” noted Holgorsen. “They’ve got guys that can break tackles. They’ve got guys that can make catches in very tight situations. These guys are pretty good.”
It also looks like West Virginia has a chance to be pretty good, too.
“(Alabama) is as good as it gets schematically, personnel wise, coaching, bodies and all that stuff,” said Holgorsen. “We had opportunities to be able to continue to move the ball. I’ve said it for 14 games in a row now: when things get hard on third down, when things get tight in the red zone that’s when we’ve got to step up and execute at a very high level.
“We did that probably a little better against the quality of the opponent but not to the point where it’s a winning effort. Whether that’s play calls or whether that’s finishing blocks or getting open, it takes a collection of things to be able to be successful against a very good defense.”
Overall, Holgorsen and his coaching staff have a lot to build on once the players watch the tape and get back out onto the practice field later today to begin correcting their errors.
“I told these guys to hold their head up high,” said Holgorsen. “We’re not interested in moral victories. We played hard and we put ourselves in position to win, which was obviously our goal, but we didn’t achieve our goal in terms of finishing the game and getting a victory. That’s why you play the game and I felt like we had a chance to do that and we didn’t.
“How do we respond? We don’t want pats on the back. We want to be able to go to work, look at the film and get better from it,” Holgorsen concluded.