Fans of Alabama and the college football world in general were anticipating the season opener to be a showcase for the Crimson Tide quarterback competition to be played out in live action. After all, Alabama was a 27-point favorite over a West Virginia team coming off a 4-8 season, and this was expected to be an easy tuneup.
As we all now know, starting Tide quarterback Blake Sims did just fine. But head coach Nick Saban didn't have the luxury of taking the risk of allowing his other QB to play in any meaningful action because unexpectedly the game wasn't decided until late in the fourth quarter.
In a battle that wasn't supposed to be competitive, the Mountaineers competed. They were not intimidated, and three times answered Tide scores with one of their own. But over time the superior talent of Alabama prevailed and the Mountaineers came up short in a hard fought 33-23 loss.
Quarterback Clint Trickett showed no signs of the shoulder problems that plagued him in 2013. Trickett was 29-for-45 for 365 yards, a performance made even more impressive by several factors. The running game had a few flashes of success in the first half, but was shut down by the Tide in the second, and several catchable passes were dropped by Mountaineer receivers. It also quickly became apparent that it was impossible for Alabama defenders to commit pass interference, as several pass breakups on blanket coverage by Tide receivers were all deemed fair game by the officiating crew. This was the same crew which kept a Bama scoring drive alive with a frivolous 15-yard penalty on the WVU sideline.
Admittedly all fans occasionally see such plays through the prism of our team loyalty, but I have to call that one as I saw it.
Defensively, West Virginia did manage to stop Alabama several times, forcing the Tide to attempt four field goals and stopping them on downs on another occasion, but these all occurred after allowing Alabama to cross into WVU territory. On several occasions, Alabama was in poor field position but the Mountaineer defense could not get off the field on third down. The lack of an effective pass rush, a problem throughout the 2013 season, allowed Bama to play pitch and catch to convert one third down after another.
West Virginia prevented the big play, but allowed 538 yards overall and a whopping 288 rushing yards, and forced only two punts all afternoon. These are stats with which WVU fans have become familiar and are a concern when facing more prolific passing attacks later in the season. But it is too early to make any conclusive judgments considering the Mountaineers were playing against an offense with highly recruited players across the board and several who will be playing on Sundays after their college careers are over.
Special teams play was solid, highlighted by a 100-yard kickoff return by Mario Alford, who brought back memories of the Tavon Austin days for WVU fans.
While the play of West Virginia was encouraging, a loss is never satisfying even if to the No. 2 team in the nation. This was a game that was not out of reach, but to pull off a huge upset an underdog must play flawlessly and get a few breaks along the way, and that didn't happen.
This Saturday: When an FCS team appears on the schedule, it is easy to chalk it up as an easy victory. But sometimes that can be a mistake. For example North Dakota State, the defending FCS champion, has defeated two Big 12 teams on their home fields in consecutive seasons.
Towson State was the loser in that FCS championship game last season and was ranked No. 7 in that division coming into this season. But Towson was upset at home in their opener by Central Connecticut State on Saturday, so perhaps the Tigers aren't quite as strong as expected.
But just in case, the Mountaineers need to avoid a letdown and stay focused on the task at hand. West Virginia 41, Towson State 21.