ATLANTA — This game was always going to be about quarterbacks.
When AJ McCarron announced he would come back to Alabama for the 2013 season, this 2014 West Virginia game was marked on the calendar as a starting-over point under center. So a majority of the attention was on Blake Sims (and the lack of Jake Coker) and understandably so.
Sims’ debut was solid, but that shouldn’t be at the top of any Alabama fan's worry list at this point in time. The team got less-than-stellar play from its cornerbacks—who allowed West Virginia to move the ball with ease at times and keep the game close in a 33-23 win for the Crimson Tide—and that should be the point of focus from this game.
The Mountaineers, as expected, came flying out of the gate with an uptempo attack and finished with 393 yards, including 365 through the air. Quarterback Clint Trickett was efficient, completing 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards and a score. Kevin White had a monster game, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
West Virginia matched up well on the outside and took advantage of Alabama’s undersized starting corners—Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones both check in less than 6'0"—and had success on quick screens and one-on-one jump balls.
Sylve in particular missed several tackles on screen passes and was one-on-one with the 6’3” White on a fade route on the Mountaineers’ lone offensive touchdown of the game.
“He knows he’s going to be beat playing some of the best wide receivers in the game,” junior safety Landon Collins said of Sylve. “He was cutting them off. He had great position, but his man just came down with the ball. That’s what good receivers do.”
Collins is right about the touchdown.
Sylve could be faulted for not turning back to find the ball, but he was stuck on White like glue (and probably could have been called for pass interference). White used his size to his advantage to go up over Sylve, and Trickett threw him a perfectly placed ball.
Sylve, though, missed several tackles in the open field that led to big chunks of yards given up on screen plays.
“It happens sometimes,” linebacker Denzel Devall said. “I told him, ‘Just play the next play. Don’t worry about it. We got you.’ And that’s what we do. We look out for each other and pick each other up. Things happen like that. It’s football. You move on to the next play and get back to it.”
Alabama knew that cornerback was going to be a concern heading into this season. It lost Deion Belue—the Crimson Tide’s only consistent corner last year—to graduation, and Eddie Jackson was hurt in spring practice and isn’t quite recovered yet. Alabama signed two 5-stars in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, but it remains to be seen how far either of those two are from playing.
The tackling can be corrected. That’s a matter of technique and repetition. But the size difference should be a concern, especially going into SEC play.
“I think we showed that we have each other’s back,” safety Nick Perry said. “We know if one guy gets down, we have to go and lift him up. That’s going to be a big thing for us this season. We have to play as a team, play as a unit, and we have to have each other’s back.”
Sylve’s teammates were supportive of the beleaguered corner and even sympathetic.
“We go up against the best receivers, I think, in the country every day in practice with Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White,” Perry said. “Those guys make plays on us all the time. So as a DB, you’ve got to have a short-term memory. I think Bradley has that. He was just going—playing the next play.”
There’s not an immediate sense of urgency at the cornerback position, with games coming up against Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. But Alabama opens up SEC play with Florida and Ole Miss, two teams with physical wide receivers. It can’t survive all season with the cornerback play it got Saturday night.
Even if the quarterbacks are more fun to talk about.
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.