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November 24, 2007

West Virginia on track for BCS title game

Box score

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. The pandemonium that erupted at Milan Puskar Stadium as West Virginia celebrated its Big East championship Saturday represented a larger-scale version of the bedlam that took place in the privacy of the Mountaineers' team hotel about 24 hours earlier.

West Virginia had just broken from team meetings Friday night when the Arkansas-LSU game headed into its final stages. Shortly after the players got back into their rooms, Arkansas cornerback Matterral Richardson made the game-clinching interception that knocked LSU out of the national title chase and allowed West Virginia to control its destiny.

The party started immediately afterward.

"Everybody ran out of their hotel room up and down the hallways for like five minutes," West Virginia strong safety Eric Wicks recalled Saturday after the Mountaineers' 66-21 victory over Connecticut. "Somebody stripped naked and did it, too. Let's put it like that. We had a streaker."

Wicks wouldn't name the player who shed his clothes, and quarterback Pat White insists he stayed in his room the entire time. So we can rule out the possibility that the sight of the streaker is what made White so sick.

White rushed for 186 yards and accounted for three touchdowns even though he said he vomited "about 12 times" over the course of the game. His Heisman-caliber effort helped move West Virginia one step closer to a spot in the BCS national championship game.

West Virginia (10-1 overall, 5-1 in the Big East) has clinched its fourth Big East crown in the past five seasons and should move into one of the top two spots when the BCS standings are released Sunday. A victory at home against Pittsburgh (4-7) next week almost certainly would allow the Mountaineers to play for the national title.

The Mountaineers can only hope White is feeling better by then, though his illness certainly didn't hurt his performance Saturday. In fact, it may have helped him.

"Most of the time, it was when I was getting tackled that I was (vomiting)," White said.

Maybe that explains why the Huskies appeared in no hurry to tackle him for most of the night. Of course, White's speed and shiftiness also probably had something to do with it.

White ran for a 3-yard score and threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darius Reynaud to cap West Virginia's first two possessions of the day. He then broke open a relatively close game early in the third quarter with the type of play that exemplified his ability to make the spectacular look routine.

Offensive player of the game
West Virginia QB Pat White rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He also went 9-for-13 through the air for 107 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception. And he did all that despite feeling so sick that he vomited 12 times during the game, according to his own estimate.
Defensive player of the game
West Virginia LB Mortty Ivy collected 11 tackles three for losses and two sacks. On one of the sacks, he forced a fumble that led to a touchdown.
Turning point
Connecticut had scored in the final minute of the first half to cut West Virginia's lead to 24-14, but White made a huge play in the first series of the third quarter to put the momentum back in the Mountaineers' favor. With the Mountaineers facing third-and-15, White ran to his right, then cut to his left, leaving four defenders in his wake on the way to a 24-yard touchdown.
Surprise performers
West Virginia TB Noel Devine burst onto the scene by rushing for 136 yards on five carries in a Sept. 13 victory over Maryland, but he hadn't run for more than 40 yards in any of the Mountaineers' seven games since that coming-out party. The former five-star prospect showed his enormous potential once again Saturday by rushing for 118 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Devine wasn't the only West Virginia freshman running back to make a big play. Jock Sanders had a 56-yard run early in the fourth quarter to set up his own 1-yard touchdown.
What this means for Connecticut
The Huskies failed in their quest to win their first conference title since capturing the Yankee Conference championship in 1973, but they've still exceeded all expectations by going 9-3. Their likely reward is an appearance in a bowl such as the Sun, Papajohns.com or Meineke Car Care.
What this means for West Virginia
The Mountaineers should move into one of the top two spots in the BCS standings and almost certainly will play in the BCS national championship game as long as they beat Pittsburgh at home next week.
White and Steve Slaton both went over the 1,000-yard mark Saturday to become only the third set of teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones also have rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons. The former Minnesota tandem of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney is the only other set of teammates to accomplish the feat. ... West Virginia K Pat McAfee's string of 11 consecutive successful field-goal attempts ended when he missed a 56-yarder just before halftime. ... Darius Reynaud's 14-yard reception in the first quarter was his 11th touchdown catch of the year, which tied the West Virginia single-season record set by Reggie Rembert in 1989. ... Connecticut allowed 21 points off turnovers Saturday. The Huskies entered the game having allowed 21 points off turnovers all season. ... This marked the first time Connecticut has allowed at least 50 points since it made its Division I-A debut in 2002. Holy Cross scored the most points ever against Connecticut: 69 in 1919. ... Robert McClain started in place of Robert Vaughn on Saturday to mark the first time all year Connecticut has altered its defensive starting lineup. Connecticut had been the only team in the nation to start the same defensive lineup for every game this season.
West Virginia led 24-14 and was facing a third-and-15 situation in its opening possession of the second half. White zigged to his right and ran between two defenders, then zagged to his left between two Huskies on his way to a 24-yard touchdown. White's amazing run started a string of 42 consecutive points for West Virginia.

"I dropped back to pass, and I guess they did a great job of covering," White calmly explained afterward. "All the defenders dropped out, and I started running right. There were white jerseys to the right, so I cut left. And (there was) great blocking downfield and I happened to get to the end zone."

With one regular-season game and a bowl matchup left on his schedule, White has 1,144 rushing yards, which gives him a remote chance of breaking the NCAA single-season mark for quarterbacks. Air Force's Beau Morgan rushed for 1,494 yards in 1996.

If he sticks around for his senior year, White has an excellent opportunity to set the NCAA career quarterback rushing record currently held by Missouri's Brad Smith, who ran for 4,289 yards from 2002-05. White has 3,315 rushing yards in his first three seasons.

"I think he's the best football player in the country," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez acknowledged he was biased, and noted that coaches of other Heisman Trophy candidates would probably say the same thing about their own players. But he wasn't the only coach speaking out on White's behalf Saturday.

"I'm not sure that there is one who is better than him," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "He's got my vote."

White's big game came on a day in which he and Steve Slaton both went over 1,000 yards for the season to become just the third set of teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back years. The only other teammates to accomplish that feat are the current Arkansas duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and the former Minnesota tandem of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.

The presence of White and Slaton made West Virginia a popular preseason pick to contend for the national title. They certainly did their part Saturday in helping the Mountaineers rush for 517 yards - 415 in the second half - and achieve their highest point total since an 80-7 thrashing of Rutgers on Nov. 3, 2001.

West Virginia's onslaught came against a Connecticut team that entered the day with the nation's third-ranked scoring defense. Connecticut allowed a total of 45 points in its first four games this season; West Virginia reached the 45-point mark by the end of the third quarter Saturday.

"We're firing on all cylinders," said Slaton, who rushed for 54 yards and two touchdowns.

Even the West Virginia defense that received so much criticism a year ago has developed into a well-oiled machine.

The Mountaineers ranked 109th in the nation in pass defense last year and allowed a total of 193 points in their final six games of the season. This year, West Virginia's defense is making more big plays than it's allowing.

Connecticut learned that lesson the hard way.

Picked to finish seventh out of eight Big East teams in the preseason, the Huskies had put themselves in position to win the conference title because they rarely made mistakes. Connecticut was ranked fifth in the nation in turnover margin and had only 11 giveaways in its first 11 games.

That all ended Saturday.

Connecticut (9-3, 5-2) trailed 17-7 but had the ball at West Virginia's 35 in the second quarter when Mortty Ivy sacked Tyler Lorenzen for the second time and knocked the ball loose, forcing a fumble that Scooter Berry recovered at the 40. Four plays later, Slaton scored from 31 yards out to extend West Virginia's lead to 17-7.

WVU later scored a touchdown on its own when Reed Williams pounced on the ball in the end zone after a snap bounced off Lorenzen's left shoulder.

"(We were) just hustling to the ball," said free safety Ryan Mundy, whose recovery of a fumbled punt return led to West Virginia's second touchdown of the game. "That's been a trademark of our defense all year."

West Virginia's ability to seize the moment represented a refreshing departure from the this season's norm. This season full of upsets has seen a parade of pretenders fall by the wayside almost as soon as they've entered the national title picture.

Instead of getting consumed by the pressure, West Virginia embraced the opportunity. The Mountaineers now are just one win away from realizing a possibility that seemed so unlikely when they fell to USF in September.

"We're kind of to the point where you're where you dreamed about where you want to be growing up as a child playing football," Wicks said. "A lot of people want to be on this level. We feel like we're close. We're real close."

If they're able to live out that dream, we can only imagine how the Mountaineers would celebrate afterward.

Actually, we'd rather not imagine it.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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