ATLANTA — Maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise.
West Virginia couldn't quite play catch-up long enough against No. 2 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but the Mountaineers sure gave the 70,502 at Georgia Dome a heck of a thrill.
West Virginia, pegged as 26-point underdogs, answered the Crimson Tide again and again Saturday. The Mountaineers trailed by three points at halftime and stayed within striking distance until Alabama finally escaped with a 33-23 victory.
Clint Trickett completed 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards. He found receiver Kevin White nine times for a career-high 143 receiving yards and a picture-perfect diving catch in the back of the end zone for the Mountaineers' first touchdown.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has said many times that this team is "night-and-day" better than the one that ended last season with embarrassing losses against Kansas and Iowa State. As a result, he wasn't surprised the Mountaineers took Alabama to the wire.
"I told these guys to hold their heads up high," Holgorsen said after emerging from the locker room. "We're not interested in moral victories. We played hard and we put ourselves in position to win."
Yes, there were those fouled opportunities in what Holgorsen called "critical situations." Josh Lambert missed a field goal. Receivers failed to make more than a handful of easy catches. And Trickett missed a wide-open Elijah Wellman at the goal line in the fourth quarter, right before the offense spoiled a chance to tie the score by going three-and-out at midfield after Daryl Worley's interception.
But there was brilliance, too, on a stage that demanded it. None better than Mario Alford's 100-yard kickoff return to tie the score, 17-17, late in the second quarter. Alford evaded a tackler, angled to the right and rode the sideline slipstream to the end zone.
"Mario, the fastest kid on the planet, just outran the fastest team in the country by himself," Trickett said.
Alford's heroics shouldn't have been a surprise, either; he did the same thing in West Virginia's spring game.
"Once I was past everyone, it was the home stretch for me," Alford said. And "Super Mario" doesn't believe anybody can catch him in a footrace.
"No, I don't," he said with a smile. "Seriously, I don't."
Every time West Virginia would creep within striking distance of the lead, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims would turn to his trio of running backs for answers. T.J. Yeldon ran for 126 yards and two touchdowns, and Derrick Henry added 113 yards and a touchdown. Sims was given the starting nod over Jacob Coker at game time, and he did just enough to keep the Crimson Tide ahead, throwing for 250 yards and an interception.
Alabama coach Nick Saban certainly wasn't surprised West Virginia put up a fight.
"I thought this game was going to be exactly like it was," Saban said. "I really thought West Virginia had a better team than anybody thought.You [media] create perceptions, and your perceptions are that we're really good, and they're not so good, so we come into this game with everybody's expectation that it's going to be a one-sided, lopsided game. I never thought that at all."
Running back Rushel Shell, a Pitt transfer, was a starter in his West Virginia debut and plowed ahead on the first drive to set up a field goal, giving the Mountaineers a 3-0 lead, their only lead of the day.
"They played us 100 percent different than we thought they were going to," Trickett said. "They didn't play any man, complete zone, and our gameplan was the complete opposite. For us to drive down the field like that is a testament to our work and the system."
Saban's defense was caught off guard early by West Virginia's up-tempo, no-huddle offense, but the Crimson Tide adjusted and rendered Shell and the run game all but obsolete in the second half. Shell had 39 yards in the first half and minus-1 in the second.
As tough as the loss was to stomach, the coaches have said for weeks that the most difficult day will be today as they try to rally the team to host defending Division I-AA runner-up Towson in six days.
"We're not patting ourselves on the back," Trickett said. “We lost the game. But we also understand it's a long season. This wasn't our Super Bowl. This doesn't make or break our season."
For more on West Virginia football, read All ‘Eers. Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
First Published August 30, 2014 7:22 PM