ATLANTA (AP) — With everyone focused on a three-peat, Nick Saban reminded his Alabama players of someone who did it twice — Michael Jordan.
If they’re going to follow MJ’s lead, they’ll need to play with a lot more passion than they showed in the season opener.
Better get to it.
Next up, it’s Johnny Football.
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 Virginia Tech 35-10 on Saturday night.
Saban sure wasn’t happy with what he saw — especially with Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel looming on the schedule after an off week — so the hard-nosed coach turned to Jordan and his six NBA titles 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.”
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 good measure, the junior receiver also hauled in a 38-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to blow it open against the Hokies (0-1), who largely shut down AJ McCarron and Alabama’s highly touted offense.
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 Aggies won their opener against Rice 52-31.
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.
“We’ve got too good of skill players not to give them an opportunity to make plays in the game,” Saban groaned.
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 was photographed arriving in Atlanta wearing a boot on his right foot, reportedly because of an ingrown toenail, and he looked a bit off after being the nation’s top-rated passer last season. There was an interception — he had only three in all of 2012 — and also a penalty for intentional grounding. He finished 10-of-23 for 110 yards.
“It’s the first game,” McCarron said. “You’re not always going to be perfect. They threw some different things at us that they hadn’t shown on film.”
While T.J. Yeldon rushed for 75 yards on 17 carries, the Tide finished with just 96 yards on the ground.
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.
“We want our return game to be a weapon for us,” Saban said. “It certainly was tonight.”
Sunseri stymied a brief bit of momentum Virginia Tech had after Trey Edmunds broke off a 77-yard touchdown run, cutting Alabama’s early lead to 14-7. The Hokies held on defense, but fifth-year senior quarterback Logan 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.
Virginia Tech’s last glimmer of hope faded after Cody Journell booted a 39-yard field goal late in the first half. On the ensuing kickoff, Jones appeared to be stopped short of his own 30. Then, suddenly, he burst out from a pack of would-be tacklers and was gone. The return left Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer — whose program was long known for its stellar special teams — waving his headset and shaking his head in disgust.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Thomas said. “We just have to push the right buttons.”
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. Thomas looked like a raw freshman, completing only 5-of-26 for 59 yards, though his numbers would’ve been a bit better if not for several dropped passes.
Take away Edmunds’ long run, and the Hokies managed a mere 135 yards on their other 58 plays.
“We have a lot of room to grow,” cornerback Kyle Fuller said. “The score didn’t reflect our play.”
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