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Carroll recalls that Bush wasn't especially impressed by what he saw on the video. "I guess I need to show him a better set of highlights," the coach says. Bush would no doubt be happy to take another look. "I know about the great backs, especially the ones from USC," he says, "but I probably don't know as much history as I should." That's understandable. Looking back at the past has to be difficult for someone who seems stuck on fast forward.
Fighting for Recognition
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year at West Virginia. Nearly 70% of its players are either freshmen or sophomores, and entering the season, coach Rich Rodriguez faced the daunting task of replacing starters at every offensive skill position. The Mountaineers have been consistent contenders in the Big East recently, finishing first or second in the conference the last three years, but most pundits picked them to finish no better than third this fall, behind Louisville and Pittsburgh. "It was kind of disheartening," says junior guard Dan Mozes. "Somebody even had us ranked behind UConn."
If Mozes and his teammates found such indignities demoralizing, they didn't let it show, as they put together one of the most successful seasons in school history. Indeed, West Virginia might be the best team nobody knows about. With a methodical 28--13 victory over South Florida last Saturday, the No. 11 Mountaineers ran their record to 10--1 and put the finishing touches on their first undefeated Big East season in 12 years. They will make their BCS debut on Jan. 2 in the Sugar Bowl against No. 8 Georgia. "I can almost understand the preseason rankings because we had practically no experience on offense," says Rodriguez. "But these guys have grown up right in front of our eyes."
Two young players in particular have keyed West Virginia's surprising season: scrambling redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White and freshman tailback Steve Slaton. Running behind an experienced offensive line, the two burners--both have 4.4 speed--have scored 21 of the Mountaineers' 27 touchdowns over the last five games and lead the fifth-best rushing offense in the nation (262.5 yards per game). Slaton, who has run for 924 yards in just over seven full games, is the sixth-leading rusher in the country among true freshmen, ahead of Jamaal Charles of Texas. White has 875 yards of his own on the ground, more than the Longhorns' Vince Young and Penn State's Michael Robinson.
Both Slaton and White were as unheralded as their team when West Virginia broke camp. The 5'10", 185-pound Slaton began the season buried at No. 4 on the depth chart, and the 6'2", 185-pound White split time with starter Adam Bednarik through the first seven games. Injuries opened the door for both players, however, and they held a coming out party in the Mountaineers' 46--44 triple-overtime upset of No. 19 Louisville on Oct. 15. Bednarik sprained his foot in the fourth quarter of that game, with West Virginia--which had gained just 56 yards the entire first half--trailing 24--7. Enter White, whose skills as a runner, combined with Slaton's speed, proved too much for the Cardinals' defense to handle. White picked up 69 yards on 11 carries while Slaton had the game of his life, rushing for 188 yards and five touchdowns. "We were picking up huge chunks of yardage," says Mozes. "Everybody just had this fire in his eyes."
The Mountaineers have been on a roll ever since. And now that they are BCS-bound, maybe they will finally get their due. Because of its young lineup and low preseason expectations, West Virginia has stayed under the radar for much of the season. Even playing all three of its November games on weeknights didn't help much. The Mountaineers are a member of the weakest BCS conference, so voters have remained skeptical of them despite their impressive record. When the latest poll was released on Sunday, West Virginia was still outside the Top 10, and six teams ranked ahead of it have more losses. Even the season's signature moment, the comeback against Louisville, was barely noticed because the game's last seconds coincided with the final moments of the USC-- Notre Dame battle. "A lot of the Big East negativity filters down to us," says Rodriguez. "Our guys have taken that to heart. Having to prove ourselves all the time has been a real help." -- Mark Beech
NEW K-STATE COACH
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