Alabama quarterback Blake Sims (6) throws as West Virginia safety Karl Joseph (8) closes in during the first quarter of the 2014 Chick-fil-a kickoff game at the Georgia Dome. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — No. 2 Alabama took underdog West Virginia’s best shot and survived to win its season opener 33-23 Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
Quarterback Blake Sims got the start and played well for Alabama, and running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry led a rushing attack that racked up 288 yards and helped put the game away in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t easy.
“I thought this game was going to be exactly like it was,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I really thought West Virginia had a lot better team than anybody thought. You all (the media) create perceptions. Your perception was that we’re really good and that they’re not so good. So everyone’s expectation coming into this game was that it was going to be a one-sided, lopsided game, and I never thought that at all.”
West Virginia, an underdog by more than three touchdowns, moved the ball against Alabama’s defense behind quarterback Clint Trickett. The Mountaineers trailed by only seven, 30-23, early in the fourth quarter. It could have been even closer, but West Virginia hurt itself with dropped passes and twice settled for field goals inside Alabama’s 10-yard line.
“We moved the ball in the open field, but at some point you have to be able convert those into touchdowns,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “We didn’t do a very good job of that.”
After being locked in a tight quarterback competition with Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, Sims started and played the entire game, except for the final series.
The fifth-year senior, making his first career start, led touchdown drives of 95 yards and 85 yards and completed 15 of 19 passes in the first half. He also made plays with his legs, adding a scrambling element that lacked during AJ McCarron’s three years as the Tide starting quarterback.
For the most part, the Crimson Tide’s offense, under the direction of new coordinator Lane Kiffin, looked very similar to the balanced pro-style attack that Saban has employed throughout his career.
“(Kiffin) did a great job, really helped Blake with some of his checks,” Saban said of his new offensive coordinator. “I thought he did a fantastic job. The guy’s a really good coach.”
West Virginia, in contrast, pushed the tempo, testing Alabama’s perceived weakness against the no-huddle. Trickett mixed in a short passing attack with the bruising running of Rushel Shell. Trickett threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Kevin White in the back corner of the end zone that tied it 10-10 early in the second quarter. White had 143 yards on nine receptions.
“I was happy with Clint,” Holgorsen said. “I thought he played well. He got a little bit antsy at times with some throws, but when you’re looking at what he’s looking at, that’s going to happen.”
The teams combined to score 17 points in the final two minutes of the first half. First, Yeldon’s second touchdown run put Alabama up 17-10. West Virginia’s Mario Alford returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to even the score at 17-17. Alford made one cut, broke free and outran the Alabama coverage team.
With 1:30 left, Sims marched the Tide into field-goal position, setting up Adam Griffith for a 41-yard kick that gave Alabama a 20-17 lead at intermission.
Griffith kicked four field goals in the game. Yeldon scored on runs of 15 yards and 1 yard in the first half, and Henry added a 19-yard touchdown that put Alabama up 27-17 midway through the third quarter. Yeldon led Alabama with 132 rushing yards, Henry added 113, and Sims chipped in with 42 yards on scrambles.
Sims finished 24 of 33 for 250 yards with one interception. Trickett completed 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards and a touchdown.