ATLANTA — 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 sluggish offensive performance to beat Virginia Tech 35-10 on Saturday.
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 led 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.
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.
The Tide had just 97 yards total offense at halftime but were 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.
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 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 cap and shaking his head in disgust.
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 all of last season — and also a penalty for intentional grounding. He finished 10-of-23 for 110 yards.
T.J. Yeldon rushed for 75 yards on 17 carries, but the Tide finished with just 96 yards on the ground.
While the Tide has no shortage of offensive skill players, the line lost three starters from last year’s championship team. Apparently, there’s still some work to do in the trenches, which coach Nick 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 — Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
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.
Virginia Tech, looking to rebound from a 7-6 season that was its 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, thought his numbers would’ve been a bit better if not for several dropped passes.
Take away Edmunds’ long run and the Hokies managed just 135 yards.