New quarterback. New starters on defense. Same old Alabama … mostly.
The Tide rolled up more than 530 yards in offense to pull away from West Virginia 33-23 on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome.
Showing “Boy Wonder” balance with 288 yards rushing and 250 passing, No. 2 Alabama showed that its offense will succeed post-A.J. McCarron as long as new quarterback Blake Sims has wide receiver Amari Cooper (130 yards) and running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry (combined for three touchdowns). Sims completed 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards and an interception.
“I really liked the way the players competed in the game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
It was also a small step in the redemption of new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who is attempting to recover his rep as an offensive mastermind after disastrous stints as a head coach for the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern California.
Saban, never afraid to pick at the media, sees Kiffin’s situation a little bit differently.
“You know, the guy is a really good now, all right,” Saban said. “Y’all need to fess up to that. And most places that don’t like him is because he left and they were mad because he left. They weren’t mad about anything he did while he was there. Just do a little research on that.”
West Virginia needed to answer one fairly important question: could its defense, which gave up 33.3 points and 455 yards per game last year, do anything to stop Alabama from simply running the ball all the way to the nearby College Football Hall of Fame if it wanted?
The answer, obviously, was no. Alabama held an advantage of more than 15 minutes in time of possession.
“We have to tackle better and get on them when we blitz,” West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said.
Even with Kiffin and the new wrinkle of a hurry-up offense, the Tide did what they do best to take the lead and then keep it: run the ball. Yeldon finished with 126 yards and two touchdowns and Henry 113 and one.
It wasn’t an easy win. West Virginia stayed within a touchdown late into the fourth quarter against an Alabama defense that struggled in the last three games of the 2013 season and the first three quarters of Saturday’s games.
But eventually Alabama’s old fashioned rushing attack ground the Mountaineers down in a game that was surprisingly competitive considering last year’s results until the fourth quarter.
“No one panicked,” Yeldon said. “We just went out there and played.”
After its seven-play opening drive featured four pass attempts and resulted in a field goal, Alabama went to the run game on its second drive for a touchdown.
Kiffin called five consecutive runs at end of first quarter that chewed up 31 yards and set a tone for Alabama’s offense. Two plays later, Yeldon went off tackle for 15 yards and a touchdown to give the Tide a 10-3 lead with 14:11 left in the half. Alabama rushed for 53 yards on the 95-yard drive.
Alabama unleashed a 13-play drive to take a 17-10 lead just before the end of the first half. The highlight was a 38-yard reception by DeAndrew White on third-and-13 at the 46-yard line. White caught the pass on the right and cut back across the field and away from would-be tacklers three times before he was finally hauled down on the left side line. Yeldon scored from ½-yard out two plays later.
It took West Virginia 14 seconds to respond and the answer came on a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Mario Alford. He found a hole on the right and sprinted up the sideline and away from Alabama’s defense to tie the game at 17 with 1:43 left.
After kicking a field goal at the end of the first half, Alabama extended its lead to 27-17 to a 19-yard run by Henry with 7:44 left in the third quarter. Henry ran three times for 44 yards on the drive with each rush going for at least 12 yards as the Tide began to wear down West Virginia’s defense.
West Virginia missed its chance to cut its 30-20 deficit to a field goal early in the fourth quarter because of a series of miscues. Facing first and goal on the 5-yard line, an open Elijah Wellman dropped a pass near the end zone. Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones stripped the ball from Kevin White in the end zone on second down. The third-down snap sailed over quarterback Clint Trickett’s head for a 19-yard loss. The Mountaineers settled for a 41-yard field to stay within a touchdown, 30-23, with 13:37 left.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said the mistakes were frustrating.
“There were some bad calls when things got tight; there were some missed blocks when things got tight; there were some missed tackles when things got tight; there were some bad kicks when things got tight,” he said. “When you’re playing a very good team and things are going to be tight, you’ve got to be able to execute that.”
West Virginia’s defense gave the offense another chance by intercepting Sims on first down on Alabama’s next possession. But Trickett couldn’t capitalize on the good field possession at the 49-yard line and the Mountaineers were forced to punt.
Alabama kicked a 45-yard field goal on its next possession to push its lead to 10 points, or an important two scores by West Virginia to tie, with 8:07 left.
Now, Alabama will take what it learned from Saturday’s game and apply to next week’s home opener against Towson.
“What you find out in the first game is where you are,” Saban said. “This is where we are, all right, so what do we need to do to improve as a team, and I think that’s what our focus should be, and that’s what we want to try to do.”