WVU comes up short in upset bid against No. 2 Alabama
ATLANTA — West Virginia's players and coaches talked the big underdog talk this week about playing No. 2 Alabama. That is, they embraced the opportunity. Confidence was high. They would fool people.
Such chatter often gives way to reality and ugly losses. Not this time.
Coming off a 4-8 season, the Mountaineers went toe-to-toe with a program with three national titles in the past five seasons. Down by seven early in the fourth quarter, they had the ball and a chance to pull off an improbable upset.
But the Crimson Tide, coming off two straight losses to end last season and not yet in vintage form, toughened up. The Mountaineers, still learning what it takes, made -too many mistakes in their 33-23 loss that sent Alabama fans leaving the air-conditioned Georgia Dome sweatier than expecte, and the outnumbered Mountaineers fans thinking cool thoughts of a better future.
Just don't utter a certain pair of words in earshot of any of the participants.
“We're not into moral victories,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We played hard and put ourselves in position to win, but we didn't achieve our goal. We don't want pats on the back.”
Holgorsen twice referenced last year's loss to Oklahoma, a game in which the 27-point underdog Mountaineers came close to a monumental upset but could not close the deal.
“From there we didn't improve very much,” he said.
For Holgorsen and the coaches and players who returned from last season's 4-8 debacle that included Big 12 losses in six of the last seven games, the repeated mantra was that coming close, even against the best, will not suffice.
“We weren't good enough to win, that's the bottom line,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Clint Trickett, who completed 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards, a touchdown to Kevin White and no interceptions coming off shoulder surgery. “I messed up bad in critical situations.”
White caught nine balls for 143 yards. Mario Alford ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown. But there were some errant throws and drops. A shotgun snap on third-and-5 on Alabama's 5-yard line sailed over Trickett's head. Instead of a possible touchdown, WVU had to settle for a field goal that made it 30-23 early in the fourth quarter.
On their next series, after Daryl Worley's interception put the ball on their 49, the Mountaineers went three-and-out for the first time.
“Yeah, it's frustrating,” said Holgorsen, who criticized his own play-calling. “You play against a really good team and you're in position to win in the fourth quarter to be able to win the game. I mean, you don't have those opportunities very often.”
Alabama running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry shredded the Mountaineers in the second half, piling up 154 of their combined 245 yards. Quarterback Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior making his first start, played well enough to keep Jake Coker, with whom he was supposed to share time, on the bench. The defense rose up when it had to.
Tide coach Nick Saban, who grew up about a half-hour from WVU's Morgantown campus, said nice things about both teams, especially the Mountaineers. But he groused about “mental errors” and inexperience at some positions.
“There's a lot of good things,” he said. “There's definitely a lot of things we need to improve on, and I think that's what you find out when you play a first game.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.