Missed passes, missed field goals, missed tackles…missed opportunities. The upset was prime for the taking. Instead, West Virginia denied itself through a series of miscues – some minor and some major – that cost it dearly in a 33-23 loss here at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
The most glaring? An achingly close would-be touchdown pass to Elijah Wellman that was slightly underthrown, costing West Virginia a chance to get within 30-27 early in the fourth quarter. Instead, Alabama came away with a seven point lead and then, after Daryl Worley’s interception, forced the Mountaineers into their first three and out of the game. Even that came on the heels of a pair of series in which WVU held Alabama on downs, then suffered Shelton Gibson’s dropped pass for a first down inside the red zone before Josh Lambert missed a 47 yard field goal.
“Missed opportunities,” said receiver Kevin White, who finished with a career-best nine catches for 143 yards and a score. “Couple dropped balls. Just didn’t finish how we wanted to. Clint was great.”
That’s quarterback Clint Trickett, he of 29 for 45 passing for 365 yards, the 19-yard touchdown pass to White and zero interceptions. Trickett’s lone significant miscue was the poor throw to Wellman, who was wide open as Alabama bit on the run fake on first and goal. Still, despite Tricktt’s ability to survey they field, go through progressions and find the open receiver, the Mountaineers never truly capitalized in the most imperative of moments.
Consider that West Virginia’s final offensive possession of the first half was stopped by a pair of dropped passes. Then, WVU’s defense forced Alabama into a third and 13, only to have multiple missed tackles allow DeAndrew White’s short-of-the-sticks catch to turn into a 38-yard gain that set-up T.J. Yeldon’s one-yard scoring run for a 17-10 Tide lead. In all, just the dropped passes themselves were the primary culprits in costing WVU anywhere from eight to 11 points.
“We felt like we would come in and give them a good game and put ourselves in position to have a chance to win, and when that happens, you’ve got to make critical plays in critical situations,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “And you need to have a little bit more success than we had tonight. It’s frustrating. When you’re playing a good team and things are going to be that tight, you’ve got to be able to execute.”
The most egregious self-infliction was Tyler Orlosky’s bad snap over Trickett’s head on third and goal two plays after the Wellman misfire. West Virginia had to settle for a 30-23 game, and the Mountaineers were never able to challenge an Alabama offense that began to impose itself via the run game late. Yeldon finished with 126 yards on 23 carries and the Tide’s first two touchdowns as Alabama built a 17-10 lead just before the break. West Virginia managed to tie the contest on Mario Alford’s 100-yard kickoff return which snapped the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game record of 98 yards set in 2009.
But West Virginia, which allowed Alabama to convert nine of its 16 third down attempts, missed the chance to keep the game deadlocked at the half when quarterback Blake Sims busted a 21 yard gain on third and six from UA’s own 30-yard line with less than a minute left. Sims, in his first collegiate start, completed 22 of 33 passes for 250 yards and showed solid pocket awareness and elusiveness. The senior had one poor pass that was picked by Worley – WVU didn’t the game’s only turnover into points – but was effect enough when paired with a run game that gashed the Mountaineers for 288 yards and an average of 5.9 yards per rush.
“We gotta tackle,’ WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “We let the quarterback out three to four times. On third downs, we were in man coverage and that coverage has to be tighter. When we blitz, we have to get home. None of us were here for a moral victory. We wanted to come in here and win the game.”
West Virginia had zero sacks, and Alabama scored all four chances it had in the red zone as wideout Amari Coper racked up 130 yards on a dozen catches. The Mountaineers were outgained 538 to 393 yards, and the Tide ran 82 plays to the Mountaineers’ 69. But through all the missed chances, there were positives. WVU’s play call mix was excellent on both sides for much of the first half. The Mountaineers began the game with consecutive handoffs to Rushel Shell, who battled flu-like symptoms. They mixed in screens and vertical throws. They hit the flats and the seams. And then the drops started, and were compounded by the handful of other mistakes.
“We had chances to be able to put ourselves in position to stay out there,” Holgorsen said. “I thought we did a good job of that in the first half. I didn’t think offensively in the second half we did a good job of executing on third downs. The other issue was being able to score touchdowns in the score zone. We did a good job moving the ball in the open field, but at some point you’ve got to be able to convert those into touchdowns.”
West Virginia scored first, going ahead 3-0 on Lambert’s 20-yard field goal after an impressive 14-play, 79-yard drive. Alabama answered with 10 consecutive points on Adam Griffith’s 47-yard field goal and a 15-yard Yeldon run before West Virginia tied the game on Trickett’s 19-yard scoring strike to a leaping White. Yeldon then finished a late first half drive with a one-yard run following White’s run after catch through much of WVU’s defense. Alford answered that with the 100-yard return, and Griffith hit another field goal as Alabama led 20-17 at the half.
It was 27-17 after Derrick Henry (113 yards on 17 carries) scored on a 19-yard run with 7:44 left in the third quarter. Lambert and Griffith then traded field goals to finish the scoring as the Mountaineers exhausted their final chance when Shell gained nothing on a fourth and 11 reception from Trickett with 1:19 remaining.
“I was really pleased with the way we controlled the ball on offense, time of possession, third down,” Saban said. “Good balance between run and pass, a couple 100-yard rushers, one 1100-yard receiving.”