ATLANTA — West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen wanted to get one point across.
“We’re not interested in moral victories,” Holgorsen said, knowing that well might be a topic of discussion in the wake of his 26-point underdog Mountaineers giving No. 2 Alabama all it could handle in losing just 33-23 before 70,502 fans in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome.
“We played hard and we put ourselves in position to win, which obviously was our goal, but we didn’t achieve our goal when it comes to finishing the game and getting a victory,” Holgorsen added. “That’s why you play the game.”
No, the record book will show 0-1 for WVU. It will show 15 losses in the last 21 games. It will show the Mountaineers have lost four straight games now.
But damn, wouldn’t it be nice if he could call this a moral victory.
In the end, Alabama won the critical battles, mostly because WVU saved its mistakes for the worst times, and that was what meant victory.
West Virginia had two first-and-goal situations and settled for field goals on both, once snapping the ball over quarterback Clint Trickett’s head on third-and-goal at the 5.
They dropped passes they should have caught, and on third down, they couldn’t stay on the field and couldn’t get Alabama off it, the Mountaineers converting just 5 of 14 while the Crimson Tide converted 9 of 16.
“Like I said for 14 games in a row now, I mean, 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,” Holgorsen said. “We did that probably a little better than we did last year against the quality of the opponent, but not to the point where it’s a winning effort.”
“Whether it’s play calls or whether it’s finishing blocks or getting open, I mean, it takes a collection of things to be able to do to be successful against a very good defense,” Holgorsen said.”
And Alabama is a very good defense, one that did what it always does — shut down the run.
We heard all during the off-season about the stable of running backs WVU had, five of them and all of them quality players.
Well, against Alabama they averaged less than 6 yards. Not 6 yards a rush. Rather, 6 yards running a player.
In all, WVU rushed for 28 yards, and quite frankly, you aren’t going to be the Cheat Lake Mustangs doing that, especially not when Alabama added an 8 to WVU’s total giving them — no, not 36 yards — but 288.
T.J. Yeldon rushed for 126 and two touchdowns — which is one more offensive touchdown than WVU scored in the game — and Derrick Henry rushed for 113 yards.
Quarterback Blake Sims, who wound up starting and playing every down but the last series when the game was over, rushed for 42 yards, including a key 24-yard third down scramble that kept a drive alive.
Sims also completed 24-of-33 passes for 250 yards and even though he was outplayed by Trickett, who completed 29-of-45 for 365 yards and a touchdown, he wound up being the winning pitcher and that bothered Trickett.
“I thought we played really well tonight but not good enough to win,” Trickett said. “That’s the bottom line. A lot of people probably were surprised by how well we played, but we weren’t. We had a lot of confidence heading into this game. We did a good job responding to adversity, but didn’t capitalize when had the opportunities.”
So don’t mention moral victory to Trickett either.
“There’s not such thing as a moral victory to me. I hate that,” he said.
You could tell things were different right from the start. West Virginia took the opening kickoff, drove the field actually running the ball well behind Rushel Shell, who started, and got a 20-yard field goal from Josh Lambert to take a 3-0 lead.
That was countered right away by a 47-yard field goal from Adam Griffin, playing his first game and doing it magnificently with four field goals, three of more than 40 yards.
The 3-3 tie lasted into the second quarter when Alabama turned to its running game and Yeldon, who ran 15 yards for a touchdown, dove the last 4 or 5 yards into the right corner of the end zone.
This time, it was WVU who countered with Trickett hitting a perfect fade to wide receiver Kevin White, who went up and made the play that he never seemed able to make last year, to bring in a 19-yard touchdown. It was the highlight of a highlight reel game for White, who finished with nine catches for 143 yards.
Midway through the second quarter, WVU punter Nick O’Toole pinned Alabama back at its 12, only to have the Tide put its running game in full gear, putting together an 88-yard drive that used up 6 minutes and 34 seconds and ended with Yeldon’s second TD, this from 1 yard out.
Talk about contrasts, Alabama used that 6:34 to score, then the Mountaineers scored in 14 seconds as Mario Alford ran the kickoff back 100 yards for the TD.
Again Alabama put together a drive, and culminated it with a Griffin field goal for a 20-17 halftime lead.
The second half was simply dominated by Alabama’s ball-control game, although WVU’s mistakes cost it dearly, one being an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on linebacker Sean Walters, who wasn’t even in the game, when an Alabama player was run into the WVU bench short of a first down.
According to defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, the players said they were trying to stop the ball carrier from going over the benches but the officials saw it as roughing him up.
At the end of three quarters it was 30-20 Alabama and when WVU had a chance to pull within a field goal, center Tyler Orlosky snapped the ball over Trickett’s head, forcing a field goal and WVU never could get any closer as Alabama controlled the flow of the game.
“I was really pleased with the way we controlled the ball on offense, time of possession, good job on third down, good balance between the run and pass, a couple of hundred-yard rushers, one 100-yard receiving guy,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
“I thought Blake Sims settled down in the second half, managed the game a little better and I was really pleased with the way he was able to perform overall.”
Now it’s back to work Sunday for the Mountaineers as they begin preparing for Towson and Saturday’s home opener.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel