Slaton, White spark surprising WVU win
ATLANTA -- It was simply supposed to be the icing on the cake.
Nothing more than a sweet finish to a six-bowl day that challenges even the heartiest of gridiron souls to stay tuned for better than 14 hours from start to finish.
Georgia Nation joked that the Nokia Sugar Bowl, moved here from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, was just another home game for their beloved Dawgs in their second home -- which is located just 75 miles west of the Athens campus.
No expectation. No substance. No drama.
And on paper, who could argue with them?
Georgia had won seven of its last eight bowl games. West Virginia had lost 11 of its last 12 bowl games.
The Dawgs were champs of the mighty SEC. The Mountaineers carried a similar flag for the Big East, but in a conference that's so publicly maligned that one of the chief criticisms against the BCS isn't that it doesn't get the 1 vs. 2 game right, but rather that the Big East still has its automatic bid.
Not that the conference has made it easy on itself by going 0-6 against ranked non-conference opponents during the regular season. Or that it was 0-3 in bowl games entering Monday night. Or that Big East teams, other than the recently departed Miami, were 0-3 all-time in BCS games.
Apparently, however, West Virginia forgot to read the script.
Instead, the Mountaineers spent the better part of four hours burning up the Georgia Dome turf as WVU (11-1) jumped out early and then hung on for 38-35 win over the favored Dawgs (10-3).
"We played a great football team tonight," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "They executed beautifully. If I wasn't coaching against them, I really would have enjoyed watching it because they did a great job."
“ And hopefully people can quit talking about how the Big East doesn't have good football because it does. We don't have a big conference but it's pretty competitive. ” — WVU coach Rich Rodriguez
The first quarter showed otherwise.
The diminutive Slaton darted in and around the Georgia defense for a 52-yard TD to give WVU a 7-0 lead and that set the tone. It was followed by a 3-yard TD pass from White to Darius Reynaud. And then Reynaud finished off the early scoring with a 13-yard run.
As shocking as the three-touchdown margin was, especially considering Georgia had only given up 21 points in an entire game once this season, the damage on the rest of the stat sheet was equally unexpected.
WVU had more rushing yards (112) than Georgia had total yards (61). And in a true show of dominance, WVU didn't punt while Georgia didn't cross midfield.
"I think the players took to heart some of the criticism of the league, the fact that nobody was predicting us to win," Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Hopefully this will give us some national respect; hopefully this will give the Big East some national respect."And hopefully people can quit talking about how the Big East doesn't have good football because it does. We don't have a big conference but it's pretty competitive."Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesSteve Slaton rushed for 204 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia.
At the end of the first quarter, the Mountaineers ran down the field to change sides at the break. The Georgia players labored their way over to their sideline for some water, for some advice, and maybe even some reinforcements.
"One thing about this matchup was that there was no team we played this season that ran the offense they ran like they do or as well as they do," Richt said. "And there's no defense that lined up the way this defense lined up.
"So it was just impossible to simulate what we were about to see. I didn't think we would end up being down 28, but I wasn't surprised that we started out a little slow."
In any case, the Dawgs finally answered their wake-up call.
After WVU increased the lead to 28-0 in the opening minute of the second quarter, Georgia finally showed up. Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown each ripped off touchdown runs of 34 and 52 yards respectively. And then quarterback D.J. Shockley engineered an 11-play, 80-yard drive that closed the gap to 31-21 at the half.
The 52 combined first-half points broke the BCS record of 48 set in last year's FedEx Orange Bowl (USC 38, Oklahoma 10).
More importantly, it set up the continuation of a shootout that no one ever saw coming.
The frenetic pace from the first half slowed, but it was replaced with the back-and-forth feel associated with a big-time game.
“ We've been working all year on our conditioning and I felt that they couldn't match up with our speed. So we just used that to our advantage." ” — WVU's Steve Slaton
They did so with regularity by finding seams, exploiting them, and then by changing directions with ankle-breaking precision.
Particularly impressive was a nine-play, 95-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that gave WVU a 38-28 lead. White and Slaton accounted for nine of the 10 plays, and it was capped off by another 52-yard Slaton TD run (his third score of the game).
"The line did a great job tonight and on that play it was wide open," Slaton said. "I saw the safety was over to my right so I just ran away from him.
"We've been working all year on our conditioning and I felt that they couldn't match up with our speed. So we just used that to our advantage."
But Georgia had one more answer with its own seven-play, 90-yard drive when Shockley found a wide open Bryan McClendon for a 43-yard score to cut the lead back to three at 38-35.
The game took its final turn when WVU, on a fourth-and-6 on the Georgia 48, opted for a fake that punter Phil Brady ran for 10 yards. One more first down, courtesy of Slaton and White, and the Mountaineers ran out the clock for the three-point win.
Slaton ended with 26 carries for a Sugar Bowl record 204 yards and 3 TDs.
"We talked to Steve a lot about just making one cut and hitting it," Rodriguez said. "When you play a team that's got a great secondary with great speed you can't make a lot of moves. I was really on him to press the blocks, make one cut and just hit it.
"And he did that today, and I think it really helped him make some of those big runs."
West Virginia finished with 502 total yards, with White being the other big contributor. The QB was an efficient 11-of-14 for 120 yards and TD, and he added 77 rushing yards on 24 carries.
"I think the win gives our program a lot of confidence, but I still don't think anybody is going to give us any respect," White said. "We've got to start working in the spring again and get ready for next year."
Maybe future opponents will take note of what the Mountaineers offense (which only loses three starters to graduation) is capable of, no matter how young it might be. That's something not all of the Dawgs did coming into the Sugar Bowl.
In the final days leading up to the game, Georgia's All-America safety Greg Blue practically salivated at the prospect of facing West Virginia's White and Slaton.
"They're freshmen," Blue said. "We've just got to introduce them to how we play in the SEC."
Based on Monday night's performance, West Virginia may petition to join the SEC.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for College Sports at ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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