- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

Welcome back to the beginning.

For West Virginia’s unparalleled backfield duo, the run of a lifetime began against Louisville.

It was almost exactly one year ago when West Virginia backup quarterback Pat White trotted onto the field in Morgantown in place of injured starter Adam Bednarik late in the third quarter with the Mountaineers trailing Louisville 24-7.

“I wasn’t used to running with the first team, so the only real familiar face in the huddle was Steve [Slaton],” said White, referencing the then-true freshman tailback who was making just his second start of the season against the Cardinals. “I looked at Steve, and he nodded and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

The rest is the stuff of heroic lore in the land of muskets and buckskin.

Behind the freshman pair of White and Slaton, West Virginia scored 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points and eventually prevailed 46-44 in triple overtime. Slaton rushed for 188 yards and five touchdowns and also caught a touchdown pass. White ran for 69 yards and passed for 49 more and the winning two-point conversion.

The two have been inseparable on the field and off ever since, leading the Mountaineers (7-0, 2-0 Big East) to 14 consecutive victories and the nation’s No. 3 ranking heading into tonight’s highly anticipated rematch with No. 5 Louisville (7-0, 2-0) at Papa John’s Stadium.

“I think you’re talking about the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the college game,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of White and Slaton. “If you bat an eye or blow a tackle, they’re lining up for an extra point.”

Statistics certainly back up Petrino’s claim. Through the first half of the season, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Slaton ranks fourth in the nation in rushing (151.29 a game) and leads all backs with more than 100 carries with a gaudy average of 7.01 yards an attempt. The 6-2, 190-pound White has contributed 619 yards to the nation’s top rushing attack (319.0 yards a game) and leads all quarterbacks by gaining 8.5 yards an attempt.

It’s hard to come up with a comparable major conference pair. Nebraska option greats Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier never came close to the 1,000-yard barrier or to matching the productivity of their I-back running mates (Mike Rozier and Ahman Green/Lawrence Phillips, respectively).

For all the talk of his scintillating scrambling ability, Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick gained just 585 yards rushing in his spectacular freshman campaign (1999). Among recent elite-level quarterback-tailback tandems, only the 2004 Texas backfield of Vince Young (1,079 yards) and Cedric Benson (1,834) put up the kind of numbers White and Slaton are on pace to accumulate this season. And neither Young nor Benson came close to matching the per-carry averages or blinding speed of White (4.4 in the 40-yard dash) or Slaton (4.35).

That’s why Slaton stands second behind Ohio State’s Troy Smith in virtually every Heisman Trophy poll. The fact is if Slaton and White attended a perennial football factory like Texas, Ohio State or Notre Dame, they wouldn’t be playing on a Thursday night … and they would both be at the top of the Heisman pecking order.

But secondary status is nothing new for the forgotten Philadelphian (Slaton) and the also-ran from Alabama (White). Maryland’s decision to spurn Slaton for another back, pulling his scholarship offer in 2004 after he verbally committed to the Terrapins as a high school junior, is one of this season’s most oft-repeated oversights. And the folks at EA Sports, the company that produces the popular video game NCAA 2007, still haven’t figured out White is a lefty, though he has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (64-for-93) for 822 yards and six scores.

“The only numbers that count are in the win column,” Slaton said. “All that other stuff is meaningless.”

Perhaps, but a little disrespect also engenders the kind of gnawing hunger coaches love.

“Those guys, along with [All-American center Dan] Mozes and [bullish fullback Owen] Schmitt, are our hardest workers,” West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Steve was our top guy in the weight room this offseason. And Patrick is routinely the last guy off the practice field. That kind of commitment really speaks to the younger, less experienced guys and shows them how you earn success.”

Success for White and Slaton tonight in West Virginia’s biggest test of the season will put them one giant step closer to Glendale, Ariz., for a potential showdown with the Ohio State-Michigan winner in the national title game.

Last year, Louisville vs. West Virginia gave birth to a backfield.

Tonight’s game could consummate its celebrity and notarize its championship credentials.

• Barker Davis blogs the D1scourse.

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