ATLANTA (AP) – There was nothing special about Virginia Tech’s special teams in the season opener.
In fact, they were downright wretched.
Christion Jones became the first Alabama player since at least the 1940s to have two returns for touchdowns, Vinnie Sunseri brought back an interception for another TD, and the top-ranked Crimson Tide overcame a rather dismal offensive performance to beat the Hokies 35-10 on Saturday night.
“When you start playing young kids, that’s where you’re going to notice it the quickest,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
“We had a bunch of new guys out there on kickoff return, kickoff coverage, new guys on punt coverage. But that’s not an excuse. I mean, we’ve just got to play better.”
This was Beamerball in reverse, Alabama doing to the Hokies what they’ve done to opponent so many times over nearly three decades.
Jones scored on a 72-yard punt return less than 2 minutes into the game, then scooted loose on a kickoff for a 94-yard touchdown that sparked the Crimson Tide (1-0) to a win that could’ve been much tougher to start its quest for an unprecedented third straight national title.
“It’s every kid’s dream to do something like that,” Jones said.
For Virginia Tech (0-1), a nightmare.
Beamer said he would look at putting more experienced guys on the coverage units before the next game against Western Carolina.
“We can correct the things that weren’t quite there,” he said. “We’re going to get those special teams better.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban wasn’t especially happy with what he saw, either – especially with Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel looming on the schedule after a week off.
So the hard-nosed coach turned to Michael Jordan, whose six NBA titles included two three-peats, to provide an example.
“He was playing at 35 years old like there was no tomorrow,” Saban said. “It’s interesting. Here was a guy who had nothing to prove, and he played like he had everything to prove. That’s what our team needs to do.”
He sure couldn’t complain about Jones. The junior receiver also hauled in a 38-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to blow it open against the Hokies, who largely shut down AJ McCarron and Alabama’s highly touted offense.
“We have a lot of room to grow,” Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller said. “The score didn’t reflect our play.”
The Hokies’ last glimmer of hope faded after Cody Journell booted a 39-yard field goal late in the first half to cut Alabama’s lead to 21-10.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jones appeared to be stopped short of his 30. Then, suddenly, he burst out from a pack of would-be tacklers and was gone.
A disgusted Beamer stormed along the sideline, waving his headset and barking at no one in particular on the sideline.
The Hokies, shooting to rebound from a 7-6 season that was their worst since 1992, also struggled on offense under new coordinator Scot Loeffler.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Logan Thomas looked like a raw freshman, completing only 5 of 26 for 59 yards, though his numbers would’ve been better if not for several dropped passes.
Take away a 77-yard touchdown run by Trey Edmunds, and Virginia Tech managed a mere 135 yards on its other 58 plays.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Thomas said. “We just have to push the right buttons.”
While the Tide has no shortage of talented receivers and running backs, the line lost three starters from last year’s championship team.
Apparently, there’s still some work to do in the trenches, which Saban will surely focus on over the next two weeks before Alabama heads to College Station to face the new Southeastern Conference rival that provided its lone loss of 2012.
The Tide had just 97 yards total offense at halftime but was up 28-10. McCarron & Co. contributed only one of those TDs, and that came when they worked with a short field after a wobbly Virginia Tech punt.
Alabama finally put together an impressive offensive series late in the third quarter, capped by McCarron’s scoring pass to Jones.
Still, the Tide managed just 206 yards on offense, far shy of its 445.5-yard average last season.
McCarron finished 10 of 23 for 110 yards, including an interception – he had only three in all of 2012 – and a penalty for intentional grounding.
“It’s the first game,” McCarron said. “You’re not always going to be perfect.”
Jones’ performance masked the lackluster showing at the Georgia Dome, as he became the first Crimson Tide player since at least 1944 – that’s as far back as the Alabama record book goes – to score two touchdowns in a game on returns. And, for the first time since 1995, Alabama scored three non-offensive TDs in a game.
Sunseri stymied a brief bit of momentum Virginia Tech had after Edmunds’ long run cut Alabama’s early lead to 14-7.
The Hokies held on defense, but Thomas telegraphed a pass over the middle, Sunseri stepped in to make the pick and, without breaking stride, took it all the way to the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown.
“We want our return game to be a weapon for us,” Saban said. “It certainly was tonight.”