ATLANTA — Dana Holgorsen said West Virginia wasn’t interested in a moral victory, but as a measure of morale, Saturday night’s loss to Alabama proved very interesting indeed.
Being steamrolled by Bama would have choked the oxygen out of this program, would have undercut all the offseason rhetoric and reinforced the inferiority complex. Some suspected that locking pads with America’s No. 2 team would make the Mountaineers feel more out-of-place than the DragonCon guy sweating through downtown Atlanta covered in Groot bark.
Instead, West Virginia found itself nearly poised for a galactic upset, and Nick Saban actually questioned whether the mismatch storyline fit at all.
“I really thought West Virginia had a lot better team than anybody thought, and like you (media) all do, which I love you for doing it, is you create perceptions,” he said. “Your perception is we’re really good and they’re not so good, so we’re going to come into this game and everybody’s expectation is it’s going to be a one‑sided, lopsided game. I never thought that at all.”
Nevermind that West Virginia dropped nearly as many games last year as Alabama lost in the last seven years. What matters currently is that WVU doesn’t repeat the debacle. And taken in full context, a 33-23 loss in a game financed by Chick-fil-A nuggets delivered more sweet sauce than sour.
Clint Trickett’s 365 passing yards were the third most allowed by Alabama in the Saban Era, a performance dramatically smoother than anything delivered in 2013. Holgorsen was especially appreciative: “It’s nice to be able to signal things once and to communicate what we’re wanting on the sidelines without having to scream it at him or call time‑out or whatever.”
The screaming instead came from Saban and Kirby Smart, who noticed linebackers and defensive backs flummoxed as WVU racked up 17 completions of 10 yards or more. The Tide often did less to thwart drives than did Trickett’s own receivers, whose six drops included five on possession downs.
Kevin White was not one of those offenders, racking up a career-best 143 yards on nine catches—a couple with high-degree of difficulty.
“I want to be physical, I want to get all the jump balls. I want to catch every ball that comes my way,” White said. “Hopefully you guys will see a lot of that this season.”
And Holgorsen is hopeful WVU improves its red-zone touchdown proficiency. One drive frittered out at the 3 when Trickett went away from White’s size advantage and tried a fade-rout to 5-foot-10 Mario Alford on the opposite side. A fourth-quarter series reached the 5-yard-line only to see Tyler Orlosky flip a shotgun snap over Trickett’s head back to the 24.
“I thought 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,” said Holgorsen. “You play against a really good team and you’re in position in the fourth quarter to be able to win the game. You don’t have those opportunities very often.”
If respect equates to currency, then WVU certainly is richer after its Chick-fil-A experience. Yet this program cannot overlook the fact it heads into next week’s home opener on a four-game losing skid and having dropped seven of eight.
A decent showing against Alabama didn’t single-handedly right the team’s trajectory. “We’re not interested in moral victories,” Holgorsen noted. “We don’t want pats on the back.”
This time a year ago, the Mountaineers left Norman, Okla., feeling an opportunity had eluded them, and indeed it had. The Sooners were vulnerable that night, just as the Tide was Saturday.
Now, as it was then, the Mountaineers must prove they’re capable of consistently playing up to top competition, and not just kidding themselves when the top teams play down to their level.