MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- They lingered a little longer on Mountaineer Field last night. They reveled in not just the moment of winning their fourth Big East Conference championship in the past five years, but in the moment that could soon come, the moment their head coach refuses to address by name.
So with a national championship game chance in the offing, with their home crowd chanting "B-C-S" and singing "Country Roads" more lusty than usual, they celebrated a 66-21 rout of 20th-ranked Connecticut far more than usual. Safety Ryan Mundy struck a Heisman Trophy pose in front of quarterback Patrick White, and his wasn't the first this day. Cornerback Larry Williams grabbed the humongous "WV" flag and raced downfield. They dumped Gatorade on defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel -- "I going to have to see the film; I still don't know who got me" -- and chased secondary coach Tony Gibson for more.
In a crazy college football season when they started at No. 3 in the preseason, tying the program's highest ranking, the ground shifted gradually, favorably their way the past two months. Now it's lifting the Mountaineers to new heights: an expected No. 2 ranking today, a berth -- with a victory against Pitt in the 100th Backyard Brawl Saturday -- in a national championship game where they truly have played only once in 1988.
No wonder these fourth-ranked Mountaineers (10-1, 5-1) celebrated so robustly. No wonder they spilled into their Lakeview Resort hallways Friday night after watching Arkansas upend No. 1 LSU in what WVU cornerback Vaughn Rivers called "a gift, an early Christmas present."
"Everybody sprinted out of their rooms and up and down the hallways," added safety Eric Wicks, Rivers' teammate from Perry Traditional Academy. An unidentified teammate, Wicks said, even streaked in a post-Thanksgiving undressing. "I'm happy I didn't see that," tailback Steve Slaton said.
The Big East title knockout last night of Connecticut (9-3, 5-2) was a sight to behold itself, an all-around performance the Mountaineers agreed was their finest in a season whose promise faded with a Sept. 28 loss at South Florida. Suddenly, the promise is back and bright.
They rushed for 517 yards -- White had his fourth 147-plus outing with 186 on a sick day (something he ate) and freshman Noel Devine added 118 -- in their highest ground total since a Mountaineer Field-record 536 against East Carolina five years ago. They amassed 614 offensive yards that marked their most since an 80-7 shellacking of Rutgers in 2001, which also was the previous time they scored so many points. They sacked Huskies quarterback Tyler Lorenzen a season-high five times. They got a 52.7-yard punting performance from Plum's Pat McAfee and some long returns from Rivers. They converted three touchdowns from three Connecticut turnovers, those by a team that previously averaged just one per game in ranking as the second-most careful team in Division I-A.
They saved their best for such an important, ABC-televised game with 59,701 loud folks in the stands and vital voters watching around college football America.
"Not like we were trying to be the Patriots and run up the score, but we had something to prove to the rest of the country," Rivers said. "There are still people ... out there who don't want to see West Virginia in the national championship game. This is for them."
White, vomiting throughout the day and game, rushed for two touchdowns and passed for another in the game's first 34 minutes. Slaton scored two touchdowns, tying his career season high of 17 as a freshman, and joined White as 1,000-yard rushers on the season and a record-tying second consecutive year.
The Huskies, playing the biggest game in their 109-year history (only four of those in Division I-A), scored first after driving from their 6 for a 7-0 lead.
West Virginia then hauled off and scored the next 24 points, followed by a tractor-trailer full of more.
Should the Mountaineers lose to Pitt (4-7, 2-4) Saturday night and tie the Huskies for first in the conference, it still would retain the Bowl Championship Series berth and Big East title because of this head-to-head victory against Connecticut.
"Knowing our national championship chances are on the line, you don't have to worry about us showing up to play," Rivers said of Pitt. "I have to be honest with you, some of us guys never thought we'd be back up there [in contention]. Now it just lies in our hands."
First Published November 25, 2007 5:00 AM