Loss to Louisville motivates Mountaineers for '07

For West Virginia's two star players, the sting of nearly losing their coach is gone.

The sting of losing to Louisville is not.

Tailback Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White opened spring practice March 5 with the four-month-old Louisville loss seared into their psyches.

That game, Nov. 2 at Louisville, pitted two unbeaten heavyweights and was hyped like few games in Big East history. The Cardinals prevailed, 44-34, taking advantage of a porous WVU pass defense and two Slaton fumbles early in the second half.

"I use it as motivation," Slaton said. "I'm over it, but it's going to be a motivating thing for me."

Nobody enjoyed the crushing, 24-19 home loss to South Florida three weeks later, either, but not all losses are created equal.
"Both of them go as L's on your record," White said. "But I would say if one [stands out], it's Louisville."

White was sublime against the Cardinals, passing for 222 yards and rushing for 125 yards and four touchdowns. Slaton added 156 yards on the ground but couldn't hold onto the ball. As it turned out, he was playing with numbness in his left wrist and a broken bone in his right wrist, which was surgically repaired after the season.

"I don't think I need anything to help remind me," Slaton said. "You remember the games you lose."

Especially when they are so few and far between. The Mountaineers are 22-3 over the past two seasons, including victories in the Sugar and Gator bowls. Their 30-win total over the past three seasons marks the best three-year stretch in school history.

Which means the biggest news in Morgantown these days is that talk of WVU's competing for a national title isn't news at all.

"It's not big news at some of the other programs -- at Florida, Texas and USC," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I almost sense now that it's not as big of a deal to be projected to finish high and be ranked highly. I certainly don't sense it among our players."

The raised expectations were reflected in the disappointment over a season in which the Mountaineers went 10-2, won the Gator Bowl and finished No. 10.

"We heard a little about, 'Sorry you went to the Gator Bowl and didn't play for the national championship,'" Rodriguez said. "We don't like to finish second, but nobody likes to finish second. We'll keep aiming high."

All the success is what made Rodriguez such an attractive candidate at Alabama. He seriously considered the Crimson Tide's offer in early December before returning to his alma mater.

White, an Alabama native but not a big supporter of the Crimson Tide, said he would've had trouble forgiving his coach.

"It wasn't pretty," White said of the whirlwind that surrounded the program as Rodriguez contemplated his next move. "I'm not a big Alabama fan at all. I got a lot of calls, asking if I knew what was going on." White laughed and added, "I probably would have hated him if he'd gone."

Rodriguez, who was rewarded with a two-year contract extension and the promise of upgraded facilities, said he has not experienced any backlash from the Mountaineers' passionate fan base.

"Just the opposite," he said. "I've gotten a tremendous response for staying, and people are waiting to see more of what they've seen for the past few years. It's been overwhelmingly positive."

The good feelings figure to linger, largely because White and Slaton are going into their junior years as legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates.

Any chance they could split that thing in two?
"If they could, I wish they would," Slaton said.

Slaton finished fourth in Heisman balloting last season, when he rushed for a school-record 1,744 yards and was named a first-team All-American. Not bad for a guy without working wrists. He actually broke a bone in the right wrist during his freshman year against Connecticut and was bothered all of last season. A pin was inserted during surgery. Slaton won't participate in contact drills during the spring but said he will be ready in August.

"I'm excited to see what he can do with two hands," Rodriguez said.

White already owns the big East career rushing record for a quarterback (2,171 yards), after only 17 starts. He ran for 1,219 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and passed for 1,655 yards and 13 TDs on his way to being named the Big East's Offensive Player of the Year. In the Gator Bowl, he played through a variety of injuries and led the Mountaineers back from a 35-17 third-quarter deficit to a 38-35 victory over Georgia Tech.

White's goal this spring is to beef up his slender, 185-pound frame. He already has packed on five pounds since the end of the season and would like to put on 10-15 more so he is better able to absorb punishment.
"Gotta eat," he said.

Any chance the added weight will slow him down?

"Not if it's muscle mass," White said. "That'll give me more speed."

The Mountaineers' main mission is to retool a defense that allowed 32 points per game the second half of the season. Rodriguez insists he'll stick with the 3-3-5 "Odd-Stack" alignment, which was burned so regularly it should have been known as the 3-3-5 "Smokestack" alignment by the end of the year.

"I don't want to overreact," Rodriguez said. "I don't want to change the entire system. The most important thing is to get better individually. We're doing that this spring. I kind of like what I see."

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