Games like Saturday’s WVU opener are called moral victories. Mettle was tested. Lessons were learned. Even if that moral victory seemed more like a Pyrrhic one as WVU starters dropped to the Georgia Dome turf like they’d eaten a bad platter of Chick-fil-A grilled nuggets, they hung with the Nick Saban led Tide in a game WVU entered as 26 ½ point underdogs. They lost by 10? Hey, they gave Alabama a spirited fight!
Ugh. Moral victories still feel like losses the day after, and maybe they were underdogs entering the game, but someone forgot to tell WVU and Clint Trickett because the senior quarterback looked confident throughout. He moved the ball around, found open receivers, and finished 29-of-45 with 365 yards passing and a touchdown. Trickett guided Dana Holgorsen’s high-octane offense against an Alabama defense unprepared for the frenzied pace, and if the opening drive set a tone for this game, it proved that when WVU moves down the field it really moves. It also set a tone of coming up short, of opportunities lost, and with one, or two, or four fewer drops maybe the moral victory is a real one instead.
In consecutive drives in the third quarter Mountaineer receivers dropped passes that either would have extended the drive or, in the case of Shelton Gibson, given Holgorsen a decision on a fourth and short a long field goal. Early In the fourth, Elijah Wellman came within inches of bringing WVU within three but Trickett missed the wide-open fullback and the ball glanced off Wellman’s fingertips. Even Daryl Worley’s interception of Alabama quarterback Blake Sims came with a “what if,” as a holding penalty on the play cost the Mountaineers the chance to start inside Alabama’s 35.
On Sunday morning the narrative became how Alabama dodged a bullet, how the team and newly crowned Tide quarterback Sims overcame the plucky team from Morgantown, and how the playoff system almost received its first test. During the broadcast announcers Dave Pasch and Brian Griese focused more on the relationship between Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin than the team giving Alabama a lesson in confidence and fearlessness. WVU wasn’t a team just happy to be there on the big stage. They were a team with the self-assurance that they belonged there on a weekly basis.
Of course, when you win three of the last five national championships, the story is your story unless someone steals the headlines. Unfortunately, the story of the Mountaineers was one of a 4-8 squad from 2013-14, as ABC reminded us on a regular basis. They were the team that had struggled in its transition to the Big 12, going 6-12 in conference play since joining for the 2012-13 season. Maybe, Pasch and Griese would tell us, this year WVU would make for a tougher opponent, as though they were the Butterbean to the Evander Holyfield’s of the FBS world, the opponent who put up just enough fight to be entertaining. Unfortunately for WVU, a few too many dropped passes cost them the knockout blow.
In the end, WVU had no answers for the combination of a 240-pound wrecking ball made human Derrick Henry and speedster T.J. Yeldon. Amari Cooper caught everything in sight while Sims evaded pressure and made the plays he needed to.
Did WVU belong on this big stage? More importantly, have the Mountaineers made us believe that they’re ready to take up residence on the stage for good? I don’t know what the rest of the season will bring, if Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas State are for real for real, but on Saturday afternoon the lights of the Georgia Dome reflected just as bright off the Mountaineers white helmets as they did for Alabama.