West Virginia embracing life at the top
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- West Virginia stars Steve Slaton and Pat White were in their hotel room when No. 1 LSU's national championship hopes ended Friday night, after Arkansas' Matterral Richardson intercepted a two-point conversion try in the third overtime of the Razorbacks' improbable 50-48 victory.
"It was pandemonium," Slaton said. "Everybody knew LSU lost."
The scene was so crazy that an unidentified Mountaineer -- or at least a player anonymous to everyone but his teammates -- streaked down the hall of the hotel. The Razorbacks' upset helped put No. 3 West Virginia in position to play in the Jan. 7 BCS Championship Game in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
But the Mountaineers still had to beat No. 20 Connecticut at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday for the Big East championship, then defeat Pittsburgh in the 100th edition of the "Backyard Brawl" in the Dec. 1 regular-season finale here.
Unlike most teams that had been in such a lofty perch at some point this season, West Virginia actually embraced the pressure and opportunity. In fact, if the Mountaineers' 66-21 rout of the Huskies was an audition for a chance to play the Big 12 champion or Big Ten champ Ohio State for the national championship, the performance was like winning the New Hampshire primary by 30 percentage points.
Frankly, no other team this season made a case for No. 1 quite like the Mountaineers did.
"The neat part of this is you see all the teams getting beat," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It's nice when one of them that's hanging in there doesn't get beat. But we've got one more more game left, and it's a big rivalry game. We're not in the game yet, but we're closer than we were before."
The Mountaineers will be heavy favorites against Pittsburgh, which has lost seven of nine games since opening the season with victories over Eastern Michigan and Division I-AA Grambling State. West Virginia has won 11 of its past 16 games against the Panthers, who have surrendered 90 points in the past two games of the bitter rivalry.
"It's the biggest game of my life," White said, "and it's the Backyard Brawl."
If White and his teammates play like they did against Connecticut, the Mountaineers will be playing in a much, much bigger game after New Year's Day. West Virginia led 24-14 at halftime, then exploded for six consecutive touchdowns in the second half to take a 66-14 lead. The Mountaineers ran for a whopping 517 yards against a Huskies defense that had limited eight of its first 11 opponents to fewer than 150 rushing yards.
"We have explosiveness, and that was neat to see," Rodriguez said. "In the second half, we kept the gas pedal on."
The Mountaineers look like they might never take their foot off the floor. White ran 16 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns, including a couple of mind-boggling sprints. Slaton ran 10 times for 54 yards and two scores, and speedy freshman Noel Devine carried 11 times for 118 yards and one touchdown.
"They're dangerous," White said of his tailbacks. "That's a lot of speed in the backfield. It gives defenses headaches."
And restless nights. Here's what's really scary: White was that effective even after throwing up nearly a dozen times on the sideline. He also completed 9 of 13 passes for 107 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
White said he didn't know whether his upset stomach was the result of a virus or something he ate.
"It came out of nowhere," White said. "I was excited and pumped up."
At least the Heisman Trophy candidate was able to pick his spots when getting sick.
"Most of the time, it happened when I was getting tackled," White said.
If Ohio State fans want to avoid an upset stomach, they might not want to root too hard for Oklahoma to beat No. 2 Kansas or No. 4 Missouri in next week's Big 12 Championship Game in San Antonio. The No. 5 Buckeyes should really save themselves from being embarrassed for the second season in a row.
The Buckeyes' national title hopes seemed lost when they fell to Illinois 28-21 on Nov. 10. Then Oregon, Oklahoma and finally LSU lost while the Buckeyes watched. But Ohio State's chances of winning the BCS title are still fleeting, at best. Even if the Buckeyes use the back door to the Louisiana Superdome by finishing in the top two of the final BCS standings, they don't stand a chance against West Virginia.
After Florida ran up and down the field against a better Ohio State team in a 41-14 win in the 2006 BCS Championship Game, the Mountaineers might actually lap the Buckeyes on the Bayou. The Mountaineers are really that fast.
Think Gators quarterback Tim Tebow can run? White runs better.
"I'm biased," Rodriguez said. "I think he's the best football player in the country. Pat has done it his whole career. He makes plays when plays aren't there, and when plays are there, he makes them better."
Think Florida receiver Percy Harvin is fast? Devine and Slaton are faster. Collectively, no other team in the country has as much speed as the Mountaineers.
"They're athletic and they've got speed," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "They've got guys that make plays. They are talented. [Devine] may be the best of them all, and Pat just makes things happen. They don't have a weakness on offense."
Unlike the past few seasons, when West Virginia went into games figuring it would have to outscore opponents to win, its defense is pretty stout, too. The Mountaineers went into the weekend ranked fourth in the country in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. They are in the top 20 nationally in rush defense, pass defense and turnovers gained.
"I don't think it's surprising," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "I thought we had a chance to be a good defense in the spring. I really thought we had a chance to be good last year, but we never grew enough back there. But the kids, to their credit, played with a chip on their shoulder throughout the season. Now they're in position to get to the national championship game."
The only opponent standing in West Virginia's way is Pittsburgh, its oldest nemesis.
"The more you win, the more that's at stake," Rodriguez said. "There's certainly a lot at stake in this next game."
The Mountaineers have more at stake than any other team because, right now, no other team in the country is better than West Virginia.
"You've got to get to that game to win it," Rodriguez said. "You can't think about it until you get to the game. If we win the next one, we'll get there."
And the Mountaineers will win it.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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