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Mountain of a task

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Welcome to "Almost Heaven."

About half the 60,000 fans in Old Gold and Blue remained in Mountaineer Field to give their team a standing ovation in the final seconds of West Virginia's 52-3 drop-kicking of its Division I-AA opponent, Eastern Washington.

Guard Jeremy Sheffey held his helmet high on his outstretched right hand and pointed his left index finger to the sky, signifying the ultimate goal of the Mountaineers this season. Other players signed autographs, and John Denver's classic "Country Roads" began to play over the loudspeakers.

The happy fans took up the chorus: Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia.

"It's a good feeling," fullback Owen Schmitt said. "It means we won because that is when we sing it."

The tune is sung with gusto at Mountaineer Field these days.

Coach Rich Rodriguez took over a mediocre program and in six seasons built it into a national power. Fifth-ranked West Virginia has won or shared the past three Big East championships -- the Mountaineers posted an 11-1 record and won the title outright last season -- and gained new respect by beating SEC champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in January.

The Mountaineers this month opened the year with their highest preseason ranking ever and have a good chance to go undefeated. Earning a berth to the Bowl Championship Series title game, however, could prove tricky, even if the Mountaineers stay perfect. They play in a low-rated conference and face a mediocre nonconference schedule.

West Virginia (2-0) will try to prove they are worthy tonight when they play host to Maryland (2-0) in a nationally televised game on ESPN.

"West Virginia can't just win," said Jerry Palm, publisher of collegeBCS.com, which produces a replica of the BCS standings. "Other than playing Louisville and maybe Pitt, when they are playing everybody else they can't win by just three. They have to beat Maryland good. People will look for a reason to drop them in the rankings. They have to have easy wins."

West Virginia has little chance of reaching the title game if two other major teams from the five other BCS conferences plus Notre Dame go unbeaten. The Mountaineers' best hope is that, at most, only one other team finishes unbeaten and that their own poll numbers are better than those of any team with one loss.

Still, Rodriguez says he will not run up a score to improve the Mountaineers' postseason outlook.

"There never was and never will be a thought about scoring to impress a pollster or perception outside the program," Rodriguez said. "We just try to score every time we have the ball."

The weak schedule -- No. 12 Louisville is the only ranked team the Mountaineers face -- makes a prime-time game on national television, such as tonight's, especially important.

The Mountaineers have two more Thursday night games on ESPN, at Louisville on Nov. 2 and at Pitt on Nov. 16. A schedule that includes conference foes Connecticut and Syracuse and out-of-conference opponents like Mississippi State and East Carolina doesn't offer the Mountaineers many chances to win over voters.

But the prospect of a perfect season that doesn't end in the BCS title game isn't a pleasing one.

"It would be kind of disheartening," said center Dan Mozes, a consensus preseason All-American pick. "We have had the Big East title for three years now. We have high expectations. Winning the Big East is a great accomplishment, but that's a milestone on where you want to go ultimately."

The Mountaineers catapulted into the national-title picture this season in large part because of their 38-35 win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last season. Then-freshman Steve Slaton rushed for 204 yards in that game.

He emerged as a Heisman candidate after running for 203 yards in a 42-10 win over Marshall two weeks ago in the season opener.

Slaton, who is referred to around campus as "Super Steve," rushed for 1,128 yards and 17 touchdowns last season even though he did not become a starter until the seventh game.

But Slaton, rather than punishing opponents in Morgantown, once hoped instead to do the same at Maryland.

"I committed to Maryland, and they took [the scholarship] away," said Slaton, a Pennsylvania product who said he was dropped in favor of another running back. "I was devastated."

Quarterback Patrick White also took an indirect route to Morgantown. White, an Alabama native, committed to LSU, then decided he had a better chance of playing quarterback at West Virginia. However, the Mountaineers had to re-recruit him after he was selected in the fourth round of the 2004 baseball draft by the Anaheim Angels. The left-handed outfielder passed on a nearly $300,000 signing bonus to pursue his football dreams in the Appalachian Mountains.

"There is more action in football," said White, who ran for 952 yards and passed for 828 yards (eight touchdowns, five interceptions) last season as a redshirt freshman. "It's a little more exciting. There is no more baseball for me."

With White and Slaton behind a strong and seasoned line, West Virginia ranked fourth in the nation in rushing last season with 272.4 yards a game. Linebacker Kevin McLee leads a veteran defense whose only major losses were in the secondary.

Still, the Mountaineers must do their part -- run the table -- to reach the title game. Beating the Terrapins tonight is just the next step toward that goal.

"For us, it is just Round 3," White said. "There are 12 rounds in the fight."