Four Downs: Alabama’s first win was tougher than expected

ATLANTA — There weren’t many people outside the state of West Virginia that expected Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to be anything more than a romp by the Alabama Crimson Tide.

West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said his team approached its meeting with the No. 2 team in the country with nothing but confidence and an expectation to win. Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he knew to expect a battle; he felt the Mountaineers were better than anyone was giving them due credit.

A 20-17 halftime lead for Alabama slowly turned into the 10-point win the Crimson Tide finally enjoyed. But it took a lot of work and patience before the SEC’s top team got into a rhythm.

Here are four observations from Alabama’s 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

One of the most contested, and talked-about, position battles in the country was at quarterback in Alabama between Blake Sims and Jacob Coker. Sims wasn’t announced as the starter for Alabama’s opening game until the week prior to the event, and being anointed didn’t necessarily mean the job was solidly in his grasp.

The expectation was that Coker would also play, and continue competing for the job.

Series after series on Saturday, however, Sims kept trotting back onto the field with the offense, and Coker was left on the sideline.

Sims was 24 for 33 against West Virginia with an interception. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he did throw every pass for the Crimson Tide on Saturday. Coker never stepped onto the field.

But he almost did, according to Saban.

"In the second quarter Blake (Sims) got a little bit rattled, and I told Jake, I said, get loosened up," said Saban after Alabama’s win over West Virginia. "If he (Sims) doesn’t settle down, we’re going to have to put you in the game."

Sims regained his composure, and Saban said the issue didn’t have anything to do with his play. Sims called a couple of plays incorrectly, he miscalled a couple of formations, and Alabama had to burn through some early time outs in the second quarter.

Even when Sims was calling the correct play, the team wasn’t breaking the huddle quickly enough, and the snaps were dangerously close to the time clock running out.

Saban said he and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin decided to push the team into a no-huddle look to simplify the decision-making process for Sims. The idea worked. Sims got back on track, and Coker was never needed.

The quarterback controversy in Alabama is far from over. Coker will definitely get his chance. But after nary a snap in the Crimson Tide’s opening game, it may be that Sims is farther ahead of Coker than anyone imagined.

There was nothing pedestrian about Yeldon’s 50 first-half rushing yards, or Henry’s 41. In fact, Yeldon scored twice on the ground.

But there weren’t too many times in the first two quarters where Alabama’s rushing duo did anything to fantastically turn heads.

That wasn’t the case in the second half.

Both Yeldon and Henry started breaking off big plays. They both started dragging would-be tacklers for extra yardage, and showing moves that got them into open space.

At the final whistle, the Crimson Tide had two 100-yard rushers; Yeldon averaged 5.5 yards per carry and finished his day with 132 yards, and Henry gained 113 yards on 17 carries (6.6 yards per carry).

After the game, Henry said their game plan was to beat West Virginia up physically with pounding run after pounding run. That strategy started to work well as the Mountaineers began to tire in the second half and Henry and Yeldon started running roughshod through the defense.

Lots of three-, four- and five-yard running plays certainly take their toll on a defense. When a team has superstar rushers like Alabama does, there is a lot of room to excel when the defense isn’t at its best.

Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards last season and scored on 14 rushing touchdowns. Henry averaged 10.6 yards per carry on just 36 attempts.

With Yeldon on pace to rush for more than 1,500 yards this season, and Henry more than 1,300, this Alabama rushing attack will absolutely be brutal to stop. Especially when all those receiving threats on the outside are taken into account, meaning opposing defenses can’t just stack the box and defend against the run.

No one expected the Mountaineers to put up 23 points on Alabama on Saturday. And while credit has to be given to West Virginia, there’s some work to do on defense for Alabama.

Saban said there was a huge lack-of-leadership issue on defense. Without a linebacker on the field that played last season, play calling was difficult at times.

"The coordination between what the secondary was doing, and what the linebackers were doing and what they were all supposed to do was not exactly what it should have been," said Saban. "I think just having more poise, and I do think when we get some other players back, it probably will help everyone to play with more poise."

More poise and better leadership will definitely help, but there were some definite holes in the secondary that need to be fixed.

West Virginia seemed to feast on short passes into the flat, and turned those completions into first downs at will. And when the short stuff stopped being as effective, West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett had little trouble going vertical with the football.

Trickett completed 29 passes and threw for 365 yards and a score on Saturday. Wide receiver Kevin White caught nine passes for 143 yards and grabbed Trickett’s lone touchdown throw. A lot of the damage the Mountaineers were able to invoke happened when they attacked cornerback Bradley Sylve. But no one in the Alabama defensive backfield should feel good about what happened on the field Saturday.

Forget about some of the screen grabs that were floating around Twitter on Saturday that made Saban and Kiffin seem like they were disturbingly angry at one another on the sideline. That simply wasn’t the case. Or if it was at the time, there’s no bad blood any longer.

Saban praised Kiffin after Alabama’s win, and why shouldn’t he?

The Crimson Tide’s offense put up 538 yards on West Virginia. Sims threw for 250 yards, Alabama enjoyed two 100-yard rushers and wide receiver Amari Cooper gained 130 yards through the air on 12 catches.

Alabama’s offense did a good job at keeping West Virginia off kilter, and the play calling showed spurts of extreme versatility and diversity.

With Kiffin on the sideline, it was much easier to help Sims call, and manage, the game, according to Saban. Instead of being up in the coaches’ booth with an All-22 view of the offense, Saban and Kiffin decided to keep the offensive coordinator on the field to converse with Sims, a first-year starter.

With two strong personalities like Saban and Kiffin possess, it would have been easy for there to be some struggles with power. Saban’s remarks after the game made it seem like he was absolutely thrilled to have Kiffin on his staff.

"The guy is a really good coach," said Saban. "Y’all (the media) need to fess up to that. Most places that don’t like him, it’s 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."

Had Saban been able to drop the microphone he was speaking into, he might have done just that and left the press conference. But he didn’t. What he did convey is that as long as Kiffin’s offense continues to thrive, there should be a place for him at Alabama.