ATLANTA — A huge upset was in West Virginia's reach against No. 2 Alabama. The Mountaineers just couldn't grab it.
Clint Trickett passed for 365 yards and Mario Alford returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, but too many dropped passes and missed opportunities left West Virginia unable to keep up with the Crimson Tide in a 33-23 loss Saturday.
"Yeah, it's frustrating," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "You play against a really good team and you're in position to in the fourth quarter to be able to win the game. I mean, you don't have those opportunities very often."
The Mountaineers' up-tempo spread gave Trickett his pick of open receivers, and he took advantage, going 29 for 45 with a touchdown. Kevin White gave Alabama's defensive backs fits, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score.
But West Virginia didn't take full advantage, dropping more than a half-dozen catchable passes, including one off the hands of Elijah Wellman near the goal line that would have been a sure TD early in the fourth quarter. Then two plays later, a shotgun snap went over Trickett's head and the Mountaineers settled for Josh Lambert's 41-yard field goal to make it 30-23.
Coming off a 4-8 season, West Virginia was a 26½-point underdog. The Mountaineers seemed like nothing more than the backdrop to Alabama's quarterback competition. They didn't play that way. Alford's return for a score with 1:43 left in the first half tied the score at 17.
"We really had the confidence that we were going to compete," Trickett said.
That's no easy task.
Blake Sims was 24-for-33 for 250 yards and added 42 running, playing every meaningful series in his first start. The fifth-year senior beat out Florida State transfer Jake Coker for the start. Tide coach Nick Saban had suggested both quarterbacks would play, but Coker only came in to take a knee at the end.
T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns), Derrick Henry (113 yards rushing and a score) and Amari Cooper (12 catches for 130 yards) provided plenty of support for Sims. Alabama needed all the offense it could get because West Virginia found plenty of soft spots in the Tide's D.
"I know that we made a lot of mental errors," Saban said. "And I think at times, the coordination between what the secondary was doing and what the linebackers were doing what they were all supposed to be doing was not exactly what it should have been."
Henry scored the only touchdown of the second half on a 19-yard run midway through the third quarter to put Alabama up 27-17. It was all field goals from there.
No matter who plays quarterback for Alabama, he'll have a treasure trove of talent with which to work. Sims only had to complete three passes on a 14-play, 95-yard touchdown drive that Yeldon finished with a 15-yard run, diving into the end zone for a 10-3 lead. That drive took 6:57.
Trickett responded with a 19-yard touchdown pass to White, who went high over Bradley Sylve in the corner of the end zone. That 75-yard drive took 2:13 and tied it at 10-10.
Alabama slowly drove to another Yeldon touchdown, this one from a yard out with 1:54 left in the half.
West Virginia responded even faster this time. Alford sidestepped one tackler and flashed some Big 12 speed, outrunning the Tide to the end zone.
The Mountaineers allowed 538 yards, so a defense that has been poor the last two seasons still needs a lot of work.
But Holgorsen was hired to bring an explosive offense to Morgantown, West Virginia, and even that was lacking at time during a dreary 2013.
With Trickett healthy after struggling with injuries last year, West Virginia showed signs of being potent again — if it can hold on to a few more passes.
"I told these guys to hold their heads up high," Holgorsen said. "We're not here for moral victories. We played hard and put ourselves in position to win, but we didn't achieve our goal when it comes to finishing the game and getting a victory."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP