ATLANTA – Blake Sims was good enough in his first start at quarterback for Alabama, getting plenty of help from Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, and the second-ranked Crimson Tide held off West Virginia, 33-23, Saturday.
Sims was 24-for-33 for 250 yards and added 42 running, playing every meaningful series. The fifth-year senior beat out Florida State transfer Jake Coker for the start. Tide coach Nick Saban suggested both quarterbacks would play, but Coker only came in to take a knee at the end.
Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns), Henry (113 yards rushing and a score) and Cooper (12 catches for 130 yards) provided plenty of support. Alabama needed all the offense it could get because West Virginia found plenty of soft spots in the Tide’s D.
The Mountaineers’ up-tempo spread gave Clint Trickett his pick of open receivers, and he took advantage with 365 yards passing.
But West Virginia didn’t take full advantage, dropping more than a half-dozen catchable pass, including one off the hands of Elijah Wellman near the goal line that would have been a sure TD early in the fourth quarter.
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 continued quarterback competition. They didn’t play that way. Mario Alford returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score with 1:43 left in the first half to tie the game at 17-17.
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.
Coker warmed up briefly on the sideline in the first half, but that was it until it was time for victory formation at the end. Jameis Winston’s backup last season spent a good amount of his day, sitting on the bench near Sims.
Coker came to Alabama as a graduate transfer, immediately eligible and the presumptive replacement for AJ McCarron. Coker and McCarron even went to the same high school, St. Paul’s in Mobile, Alabama.
There are no presumptions with Saban, though, and he tried to put an end to all that during the summer, making it clear that nothing was guaranteed to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior.
Throughout camp Saban would only say that both quarterbacks were progressing, heaping praise on Sims, while not slighting Coker.
Saban has another Tide team ready to roll. Alabama is loaded with playmakers on offense. The biggest question in the preseason was who would be behind center, but it sure looked as if a defense that struggled at times last year against spread offenses could be a problem again for the Tide.
New Tide offensive coordinator, and former Southern California coach, Lane Kiffin gave Sims some short, quick passes in his first series. Sims completed his first three throws, all toward the sideline and helped Alabama drive to the West Virginia 30. On third-and-4, Sims had Cooper open short over the middle and fired too low for the star receiver to grab. Adam Griffith kicked a 47-yard field goal to tie the game at 3.
Griffith finished with four field goals, adding ones from 41, 27 and 45.
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 Kevin 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 quickly — even faster this time. Alford sidestepped one tackler and flashed some Big 12 speed, outrunning the Tide to the end zone to tie the game at 17.
Bama came right back and regained the lead when Griffith kicked a 41-yarder as time expired on a half that left Saban calling his defense “soft” during his TV interview.