- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Exactly 10 months elapsed between West Virginia's stunning upset of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and its Big East showdown Thursday night at Louisville. In that time, the Mountaineers handled their new role as a national championship contender as if it were nothing new at all.
They worked toward their goal of reaching the BCS Championship Game. They focused on coach Rich Rodriguez's goals of staying hungry and staying humble. They rose to No. 3 in the nation by winning seven consecutive games by at least 17 points.
West Virginia came to No. 5 Louisville with a 14-game winning streak, a school record.
And all of it -- the hard work, the goal of being in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8, the dreams of a ring -- disappeared in 5½ minutes Thursday night.
Louisville's final margin of 44-34 sounds as if the game might have been in doubt late. Nope. This game ended early in the third quarter.
The Mountaineers came out of halftime trailing the Cardinals 16-14. With 9:23 left in the third quarter, the Mountaineers trailed 30-14. That quickly, Louisville advanced to 8-0 and brought its own dreams of playing for the crystal football that much closer to reality.
Louisville forced West Virginia into making uncharacteristic mistakes. A team that had lost only four fumbles all season lost three Thursday night. A defense that had allowed opposing passers to complete fewer than half their attempts couldn't slow down quarterback Brian Brohm.
After two arrhythmic starts following his return from thumb surgery, Brohm finally resembled the Heisman Trophy candidate who wore No. 12 for the Cardinals at the beginning of the season.
He completed 19 of 26 passes for 354 yards -- an average of nearly 19 yards per completion -- and a touchdown. An offense that had committed three turnovers in each of Brohm's last two starts coughed up the ball only once against West Virginia.
"We wanted to be really aggressive as ever because we knew how explosive they were on offense," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said.
But here's what's really strange. In those five-plus minutes when Louisville blew open the game, it did so while Brohm and his offense watched from the sideline.
Talk about your Card tricks.
When West Virginia said it wanted to keep Brohm off the field, that's not exactly what the Mountaineers had in mind.
Louisville amassed 279 yards and made four trips into the red zone in the first half alone. The Cardinals scored only a touchdown and three Art Carmody field goals. Late in the half, trailing 14-13, Louisville ran five times inside the West Virginia 4 and didn't get into the end zone. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Petrino swallowed hard and sent in the field goal team again.
"I didn't like doing that," Petrino said. But he had nothing else to do.
"We used every single play we had in our goal-line offense and didn't get it in. I really wanted to go for it. We should have been able to score earlier. Any time you got Art Carmody, you've got to get points on the board."
Carmody made the 18-yarder with 1:36 to play in the half to give Louisville a 16-14 lead. But West Virginia went into the locker room feeling good about itself. Moreover, the third quarter has belonged to the Mountaineers all season. In seven games, West Virginia had allowed a total of 10 third-quarter points.
In 5:37, the Mountaineers gave up 14 more. In seven snaps, the West Virginia offense played like Sen. John Kerry tells jokes. Slaton, who has never been accused of being a fumbler, lost the ball on consecutive snaps in that decisive period at the beginning of the second half.
"His funny bone was messed up," Rodriguez said after the game. "I wasn't quite aware of it. I don't know if it happened on the first [fumble]. We were aware of it after that. He couldn't grip it well. We didn't play him until he got his strength back."
On one play, Slaton fumbled, the Mountaineers got flagged for holding, and after the Cardinals' Lamar Myles recovered at the Louisville 41, West Virginia tossed in a dead ball personal foul as a bonus.
Three plays later, the West Virginia defense got the ball back, when corner Vaughn Rivers stripped wide receiver Jimmy Riley at the Mountaineers' 11.
But on the next play, Louisville defensive end Brandon Cox pinned Slaton's arms from behind and the ball popped out at the West Virginia 13. Jackson picked up the ball and ran in for a touchdown.
After a three-and-out, Guy's punt return up the left side of the field made the score 30-14. Let the celebration begin.
When Slaton returned in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers drove for two touchdowns. But the defense couldn't stop the Cardinals from reciprocating. Never will 156 rushing yards and 74 receiving yards -- Slaton's totals -- be so overshadowed.
The Cardinals will face a second consecutive unbeaten opponent -- No. 15 Rutgers -- on the road Thursday night (ESPN, 7:30 ET). The Mountaineers will try to refocus on goals that don't include the national championship.
"These guys will respond," Rodriguez said. "They are the type of group that will get back to work."
All the work in the world won't get back those 5½ minutes. The Mountaineers are 7-1.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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