- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- For one quarter Thursday night, No. 5 West Virginia made the debate about who's No. 1 moot. For one quarter, the Mountaineers looked like the best team in the East. Not the Big East -- the NFC East.
West Virginia scored 14 points before the Maryland offense stepped on the field and 28 points before the Terps moved past the Mountaineers' 49-yard-line.
All in the first quarter.
Sophomore tailback Steve Slaton scored touchdowns of 38 and 37 yards, and he ran 52 yards to set up a third score.
All in the first quarter.
West Virginia converted two Maryland turnovers into touchdowns.
In, yep, the first quarter.
Long after the ESPN television audience had flipped over to "Grey's Anatomy," the Terrapins regained their equilibrium and a measure of respect. Maryland fought back from a 38-10 halftime deficit to make the final score 45-24, before a Milan Puskar Stadium crowd of 60,513, several of whom stayed for all 60 minutes.
The Mountaineers appeared to leave mentally before the game ended, too.
"A little bit we were outplayed," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "A little bit we were conservative."
With the game clock running faster than a street-corner Rolex, Rodriguez toned down the play-calling in the second half, content to let the game leak to a finish. But, oh, that first half.
This was no I-AA Eastern Washington the Mountaineers were toying with. This was Maryland. After all, there was a difference: Eastern Washington wore red helmets.
Other than that, though, it was hard to say for a while.
Rodriguez pulled QB Pat White and Slaton after one quarter against the Eagles last week because the Mountaineers had scored two easy touchdowns on their way to a 52-3 rout. It looked as if Rodriguez could have done so Thursday night, after the Mountaineers scored twice as many easy touchdowns in the first quarter.
It's safe to say that Terrapins special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski won't be sleeping well until the next game. Down 7-0, Maryland fumbled away the first kickoff it received when Darius Heyward-Bey muffed a flip from Josh Wilson on an attempted reverse.
"We still got a long season. With Steve Slaton in the backfield, I'm sure things will get more amazing."
-- West Virginia QB Pat White
There was a reverse, all right: The ball reversed direction. West Virginia recovered at the Maryland 11. Three plays later, White flipped a five-yard pass to Darius Reynaud, and the Mountaineers led 14-0.
The Terps fumbled another kickoff, and they also allowed Reynaud to pick up a kickoff he fumbled and take it 96 yards down the middle of the field for a touchdown with 32 seconds left in the half to make it 38-10.
But even if the Terps' special teams hadn't looked like an intramural team, Maryland had no answer for Slaton. The tailback that Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen couldn't find room for in February 2005 made sure the Fridge knew who he was Thursday night. He held the ball and a grudge with equal fervor.
How do you run with a grudge?
"I feel like it's the first play all over again," Slaton said. "I'm full of energy on every play."
Slaton, who rushed for 147 yards in the first quarter alone, finished with 195 yards on 21 carries, which is unfortunate only because he finished the third quarter with 202 yards on 17 carries. Only the sternest evaluator of talent would knock points off of Slaton's grade for the way he finished.
Put it this way: A couple of dozen NFL scouts crowded the press box Thursday night. You have to admire them for planning ahead. The best player on the field won't be available before the 2008 draft.
Slaton's signature play came in the first quarter, with the Mountaineers already ahead 14-0. From the Terps 37, he took a handoff from White, sprinted five steps to his left, stopped and reversed field. With great downfield blocks from wide receivers Dorrel Jallon and Tito Gonzales, Slaton approached the right sideline. Where both Terp corners, Isaiah Gardner and Wilson, appeared to have an angle on him.
Slaton cut sharply up the sideline, sped past both of them, and raced into the end zone.
"I had seen earlier, watching film, that they are fast guys and that they like to run," Slaton said. "They were overflowing, so I thought I could cut back."
Just like that. That it worked so well is the reason that Slaton didn't stay north of 200 yards. He tried to reverse field again in the fourth quarter and lost nine yards.
"It's almost a double-edged sword when he makes a play like that," Rodriguez said, "because then he tries to do all of them. He's good at it. He's learned to read the blocking schemes and when to bang it but once in a while it sure gives a shot when he can break. His best football is ahead of him. He's a better player now, obviously, than he was at the end of last year. He's so conscientious. He's going to keep getting better."
There is room for improvement beyond falling in love with running east and west. Slaton fumbled at the Maryland 2, but tight end Brad Palmer cradled it in the end zone to put West Virginia ahead 28-0. Still, through three games, Slaton has rushed for 503 yards and six touchdowns. White, Slaton's quarterback and good friend, refused to put limits on his tailback by declaring the 37-yard touchdown as Slaton's best.
"We still got a long season," White said. "With Steve Slaton in the backfield, I'm sure things will get more amazing."
Slaton is young and the season is young. It's unfortunate that West Virginia doesn't play a team that had a winning record last season until Thursday, Nov. 2, when the Mountaineers go to No. 12 Louisville.
Maybe that night the ratings for "Grey's Anatomy" will go down.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions/comments to Ivan at email@example.com.