White, West Virginia emerging from the rankings rubble
CINCINNATI -- Like Alabama's return on $32 million man Nick Saban, the contenders keep dwindling in college football.
National title contenders freshly scratched: Oregon and Oklahoma. This would qualify as an O-No weekend.
Heisman Trophy contenders rubbed off the ballot: Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon, who courageously tried to play without a functioning left ACL; and Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who suffered a concussion in the Sooners' loss to Texas Tech.
And while the championship and Heisman fields are dwindling, look who's still hanging around.
West Virginia and Pat White.
The 9-1 Mountaineers have wallflowered their way through the past six weeks, watching the spotlight shine just about everywhere but on them. Now their late September loss to South Florida seems as though it was three lifetimes ago. They're budging their way back to center stage by doing what no contender but Kansas has done: running the table through October and the first three weeks of November.
If LSU should lose, or some school not named Kansas or Missouri should win the Big 12 title, West Virginia can complete a two-month backdoor play to New Orleans. Of course, the Mountaineers would have to win their final two games, at home against No. 24 Connecticut and Pittsburgh.
Beating UConn would lock up the Big East title. Beating both could do more than that. You have to like their chances of finishing 11-1 and hoping for some help.
"It's definitely on our minds," admitted White, the multitasking quarterback whose 155 rushing yards, 140 passing yards and two touchdowns led WVU's 28-23 victory at Cincinnati on Saturday night.
The other thing weighing on White's mind after beating the Bearcats was his two fourth-quarter fumbles, which helped turn an 18-point lead into a slightly tense finish. After the game, White shook his head for the entirety of his 53 1/3-yard walk across the width of the field to the locker room.
"I tried to give the game away," White said crisply. "Two fumbles -- one forced, one not. Just happy to get out with a win."
It marked the second straight game White has had two second-half fumbles. And that is unusual.
"That's not really Pat," receiver Jock Sanders said. "He was kind of pissed off."
The additional fumbles could be the result of the additional work West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez has put on White's slim shoulders. This was his third straight game carrying the ball more than 20 times, as the Mountaineers have turned to him to compensate for a slumping Steve Slaton.
White carried it a season-high 22 times against Rutgers, followed that up with 24 rushes last week against Louisville and toted it a career-high 27 times Saturday night. Combine that with 19 pass attempts, and the Mountaineers let White do the work on 46 of their 80 offensive snaps against the Bearcats.
Given the pace of West Virginia's no-huddle offense, it's clear White is in tremendous aerobic shape. And given the number of hits he's taking, 185-pound White is also one tough dude. White has been beaten up, allegedly spit on by Louisville linebacker Preston Smith (the Cardinals denied it) and nearly run ragged.
"I'm feeling it," White said with a small smile. "But I'm feeling pretty good. I'm trying to get down more than I used to -- I'm not a big guy, so I can't take that many hits."
The good news for White's body -- and the Mountaineers as a whole -- was the re-emergence of Slaton against Cincinnati. The preseason Heisman candidate had not topped 75 yards rushing in four of his past five games, but he delivered 103 important yards against a Bearcats rush defense ranked 13th nationally.
"That's the Steve I want to see," White said.
Despite the fumbles, White remains the Mountaineer to see for Heisman voters. Saturday night, he passed Vince Young on the NCAA's all-time quarterback rushing list and improved his record as a starter to 23-3.
This one wasn't the prettiest of the 23. But any road win is a good road win in 2007, style points be damned.
"There's always this talk of style points on ESPN," kicker Pat McAfee said. "I don't understand it. The No. 1 team in the country wins by two points every week."
LSU would beg to differ, but McAfee's point is understood. If ever there were a year when style points were overrated, this is it. Winning is hard enough -- which is why a winner such as White is so appreciated by teammates like Owen Schmitt.
Schmitt, the walking definition of a fullback, embraced White after the team greeted the large West Virginia cheering section.
"I said, 'Helluva game, baby, we've got two more,' " Schmitt said. "And since I'm a senior, I told him, 'I'm gonna miss your ass.'"
With one more win, there will be no need to say goodbye until January. With two more wins and some help, the backdoor Mountaineers can extend their breakup date all the way to Jan. 7.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.