White, Slaton a speedy combination for West Virginia

Somebody better spray that Georgia Dome FieldTurf with fire repellent before West Virginia and Georgia tear out of the tunnels Monday night.

Burning speed is the theme of the 72nd Nokia Sugar Bowl, and a good portion of it can be found in WVU's backfield in the form of redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White and true freshman tailback Steve Slaton.

Those two turned the Big East race into a two-man sprint, tallying 25 touchdowns in the past five games for the conference champion Mountaineers (10-1).

How fast is White?

"Some guys are fast; he's real fast," Georgia cornerback DeMario Minter said.

And Slaton?

"His [peewee] coach would say, 'He's the only kid who can kick off and be the first kid down there to make the tackle,'" said Slaton's mother, Juanita Tiggett-Slaton.

For the record, Slaton has been timed at 4.34 seconds in the 40, White at 4.45. But those are just numbers from recruiting camps. When the lights go on and the pads start popping, it's hard to tell who's faster. White had WVU's two longest runs of the season, touchdown dashes of 76 and 65 yards in the season finale at South Florida. But he says Slaton would win a race.

They might have had an opportunity to test each other if they'd stuck to their verbal commitments. White, out of Daphne (Ala.) High School, committed to LSU, where he was ticketed to play wide receiver (when he changed his mind and chose WVU, Daphne coach Steve Savarese told WVUsports.com, "You all just got the next Michael Vick.").

Slaton, out of Conwell-Egan (Pa.) High, was headed to Maryland, likely to play cornerback.

"We've never raced, but he's faster," White said. "He won't admit it, but he is."

Indeed, Slaton won't let on.

"We'll just keep people guessing," he said.

Nobody could have guessed that WVU's season would turn out this well, particularly for White and Slaton. Neither cracked the starting lineup until midway through the year. Both made up for lost time the only way they know how: quickly. Their efforts, behind a rugged but agile offensive line that averages 6-foot-5, 295 pounds across, resulted in the Mountaineers posting the nation's fifth-best rushing attack at 262.5 yards per game.

The two feed off each other.

"If you spy on him, it leaves me open," Slaton said. "You don't know which guy to handle first."

The 5-10, 185-pound Slaton blasted onto the scene Oct. 1 with a 90-yard effort in a loss to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. He took off from there, finishing the regular season with 924 yards and 14 touchdowns on 179 carries, good for a 5.2-yard average and Big East Rookie of the Year honors. Two weeks after the Virginia Tech game, he tied Willis McGahee's conference record by scoring six touchdowns in a 46-44 triple-overtime victory over Louisville.

That was the game in which the left-handed White established himself as a star in the making. A part-timer before that, he came on for injured starter Adam Bednarik early in the fourth quarter and rallied the Mountaineers from a 24-7 deficit with a couple of fourth-down conversions, 69 yards rushing and 49 yards passing.

Despite playing only four games as a full-time starter, White amassed the second-most rushing yards (875) for a quarterback in Big East history and set the league record among all players with 8.2 yards per carry (minimum of 100 carries).

The 6-2, 185-pound White also broke Vick's single-game conference rushing record for a quarterback when he rambled for 220 yards against Pitt. Coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense is perfect for a scrambling quarterback, because it creates space and running lanes.

White, like his predecessor Rasheed Marshall, makes a lot of people miss.

"We haven't seen anybody like White," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "He's special."

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sure thought so. That's why they selected White, a center fielder, in the fourth round of the 2004 MLB draft. At that point, White had to decide whether he wanted some quick money (the Angels offered their fifth-round pick a $185,000 signing bonus) or a chance to play quarterback in the Big East.

White admits it was a difficult choice, but says, "With what [the Angels] offered me, it made it a lot easier" to choose West Virginia.

Away from the field, White is a humble, quiet sort who often answers reporters' questions in a few carefully chosen words -- or, in some cases, a carefully chosen word. Once the chin strap is buckled, he morphs into a natural-born leader in the mold of his father, Prichard, Ala., fire chief Bo White Sr. (maybe Bo's the guy who could fireproof the Georgia Dome turf).

"On the field, he's possessed," said Bo White, who runs a 60-man fire company. "All his life, he never wanted to lose at anything. Those sweat bubbles would jump up on his nose. That was usually the sign of a mean kid, but with him, it just meant he couldn't stand to lose."

Slaton has that same kind of determination.

"I tell him sometimes I didn't appreciate him as much as I should have when I was coaching him," said Conwell-Egan coach Kevin Kelly. "But when I spent time putting together his highlight tape for recruiting, wow. His senior year against Archbishop Ryan, he must have broken six or seven tackles on a long run, put a hand down to keep his balance. He's got a heck of a will not to be tackled."

WVU's will to run the ball will be severely tested against SEC champion Georgia (10-2), which has all kinds of speed on defense. Expect the Bulldogs, who have surrendered 124 yards rushing per game, to crowd the line of scrimmage and make White try to beat them with his arm.

By the way, does West Virginia have any pages in its playbook dedicated to passing? White laughs at the question, though the Mountaineers did throw only 16 times per game.

"We can do it all, pretty much," he said. "I guess we just haven't had to throw it much. If we have to, we can definitely throw it up."

And how about the matchup, speed on speed? Does White like that?


Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.