Morgantown intensity high
MORGANTOWN -There’s been a different aroma in the air this week in Morgantown.
While Mountaineer Nation has always been one to show its full support for their beloved Mountaineers, the intensity level has risen this week.
You see, this week is the one they’ve been waiting for since the game was booked in May of 2012.
It’s more than just a regular game week. It’s Alabama week.
As West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen enters his fourth season at the helm, his Mountaineers begin the year by facing the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Saturday at 3:30 p.m. inside the Georgia Dome.
For Mountaineer fans everywhere, get your popcorn ready.
“I think everybody is probably more excited than I am at this point,” Holgorsen said, “but we are thrilled to be able to take part in a game that will be considered one of the top games in the country coming up this weekend. We’re fired up about it. Our players are in a really good spot at this point.
“We’re pretty excited to be in this situation – to be able to play a game of this magnitude. Our guys are thrilled with the opportunity to be able to go down to Atlanta to be able to play in this game.”
West Virginia, coming off its first losing campaign since Rich Rodriguez’s initial season in 2001, will face an Alabama team that has won three of the last five BCS National Championships and has lost only 15 games since Nick Saban took over as coach eight years ago.
While his body of work speaks for itself, Saban’s squad is a bit green as it enters the 2014 season. The Tide lost C.J. Mosley, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, A.J. McCarron plus several others to the NFL and ended last season with back-to-back loses against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and Oklahoma in the All-State Sugar Bowl.
The position that has come under the most scrutiny for the Tide has been at quarterback.
Saban has yet to name a starter for Saturday’s game, which will air on ABC, but will either go with junior Jake Coker or senior Blake Sims.
Coker is a Florida State transfer, while Sims is entering his fourth season with Alabama. Each has spent the offseason with new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lane Kiffin, who spent the last three-plus seasons coaching at USC.
If Saban goes with Coker, the game could turn into a battle between two quaterbacks who couldn’t beat out Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for the Seminoles starting job as Holgorsen named redshirt senior Clint Trickett as the Mountaineers’ starter earlier this summer.
Trickett, who missed spring practice while healing a surgically repaired shoulder, appeared in eight games and made five starts for the Mountaineers last season, including West Virginia’s upset victory against No. 11 Oklahoma State.
“When Clint Trickett played quarterback last year, I think that he did a really good job for them,” Saban said. “He was able to throw for over 250 yards in several games. They were able to run the ball effectively on most teams that they played against. So there are a lot of challenges with motions and run-pass screens, and they attack the perimeter in a lot of different ways.”
Senior Mario Alford and redshirt senior Kevin White will be Trickett’s top two targets, while senior Dreamius Smith will look to lead a group of running backs that boast a lot of depth.
Holgorsen was hesitant to name a starter in the backfield, but noted who starts – either Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie or Smith -really won’t matter much as the Mountaineers will stick with the back with the hot hand. Saban, on the other hand, knows exactly who will take handoffs from whichever quarterback he chooses.
T.J. Yeldon returns for his junior season after he topped the 1,000-yard rushing barrier for the second time in his career with 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, making him the first Alabama player in school history to go for 1,000 yards in his first two seasons.
The Tide also have two other backs with explosive speed in sophomore Derrick Henry and junior Kenyan Drake.
“They have three running backs who they can go to each of them and have the ability to score quickly,” Holgorsen noted. “They’ve got big kids up front – three of the five starters coming back. They say they’re starting a true freshman, then I figured out he was the No. 1 player in the country, and he was there all spring, so I really don’t consider him much of a true freshman. They’ve got big people up front.”
Alabama also boasts a talented group of receivers, led by Amari Cooper. The junior battled injuries a season ago after posting 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman. During his time with the Tide, Cooper has 1,736 career receiving yards on 104 receptions to go with 15 touchdowns.
New West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will be billed with the task of slowing down Alabama’s offense. He’ll have to do so without the help of redshirt senior cornerback Ishmael Banks, who is ineligible to play in the game due to an NCAA academic policy.
Banks, a 12-game starter last season, will be replaced with redshirt junior Terrell Chestnut, who will play opposite of sophomore Daryl Worley.
West Virginia’s defense ranked ninth last season in the Big 12 as it allowed 455 yards per game, however, Saban said the unit is much improved after watching tape during the spring.
“We think this is going to be a very challenging game for us,” he said. “We certainly have a lot of respect for what they have been able to do. They scored a lot of points last year in games that they weren’t successful in winning, but they certainly were successful in being able to move the ball and score points on people. We are going to have to play well on both sides of the ball.”
Of course, when you think of Alabama’s dominance during the past seven years, you think of the Crimson Tide’s defense.
Under defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Alabama has allowed only 91 touchdowns in its past 67 games. The Tide has led the SEC in total defense for the last six seasons and led the nation in scoring defense in consecutive seasons.
“They do a great job of recruiting top-notch talent – big, fast, strong guys – some of the better players in the country each and every year,” Holgorsen said. “They lose guys to the NFL every year, then they just replace them with guys who have been in the program, and then those guys go to the NFL also. They have a good nucleus of guys who have played a lot of ball for them.”