ATLANTA — In his first career start in the Georgia Dome since high school, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims righted some wrongs.
The last time the fifth-year senior started in the Dome was in 2009 when his Gainesville High School team lost the Georgia Class AAA state championship game.
But on Saturday, Sims led the No. 2 Crimson Tide to a 33-23 season-opening victory over West Virginia.
“For me to come back and get this ‘W,’ it feels real good,” Sims said. “I didn’t just do it for me — I did it for everybody in Gainesville (Georgia).”
Sims finished the day 24-of-33 passing for 250 yards and one interception. He added 42 rushing yards on six carries. Sims controlled the game, playing deep into the fourth quarter, as Alabama rolled up 538 yards in Lane Kiffin’s first game as the Tide’s offensive coordinator.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guy,” Tide right tackle Austin Shepherd said. “I’ve been here for five years with him. … I told him first thing after the game that I was proud of him. I thought he did an excellent job of controlling the offense.”
Tide coach Nick Saban acknowledged that he thought about making a change in the second quarter. Saban said he told backup Jake Coker to “get loosened up” and that he would play if Sims didn’t “settle down.” Saban added that it wasn’t related to Sims playing poorly.
“He called a couple of formations wrong in the huddle, he called a couple of plays wrong,” Saban said. “We had to burn a couple of timeouts. We went down to one on the shot clock a couple of times. There was confusion on the field. That’s when I said to Lane, ‘Hey, let’s just go no-huddle, and it’ll make it a lot simpler for him.’ And when we did that, he sort of got it back together and then he was fine after that.”
Saban said that was the lone stretch where Sims was out of sync. Other than that, Saban said Sims did a “really good job.”
“He had a couple guys open that he missed,” Saban said. “He also had a couple guys that dropped balls that he delivered. But all in all for him to throw for 250 yards, he did a pretty good job of executing and I’m happy with his progress. We’re looking forward to how we can help him improve, as well as Jake too.”
Coker entered the game with fewer than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. As far as the competition goes, Saban wouldn’t say whether the job was Sims going forward so there’s a chance this one continues through the next couple of weeks.
Outside of the quarterbacks, Alabama pounded away at West Virginia with the running game for 288 rushing yards on 49 carries. Junior T.J. Yeldon led the way with 126 yards and two touchdowns on 23 attempts.
Sophomore Derrick Henry cruised to 113 yards and a score on 17 carries. Wide receiver Amari Cooper led the receivers with 12 catches for 130 yards. Senior DeAndrew White added six catches for 73 yards before going down with a shoulder injury in the third quarter. The Tide’s offense was efficient on third down, converting nine of 16 attempts.
Defensively, Alabama struggled some, but held strong when it mattered most. The Tide’s defense allowed just one touchdown with the other coming on a 100-yard kick return by West Virginia.
“Defensively, we didn’t respond very well to not having the kind of leadership out there with two new guys (Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster) that have never started a game before playing linebacker,” Saban said. “We didn’t play the gap fits very well on the runs, and we didn’t execute the pressures like we were supposed to and had a lot of mental errors.”
The Mountaineers provided a good opening test for the Tide and with the next two weeks featuring lesser opponents, look for Alabama to focus heavily on the fundamentals.
“There’s a lot of good things,” Saban said. “There’s definitely a lot of things that we need to improve on, and I think that’s what you find out when you play a first game.”
Sports Writer Marq Burnett: On Twitter @Marq_Burnett.