The offensive stars get most of the ink, but a sneaky-good defense may be the key to West Virginia's title hopes
AFTER METHODICALLY dispatching No. 25 Rutgers 31--3 last Saturday on a rainy New Jersey afternoon that saw cars skidding and sliding through the pits of ankle-high mud that served as parking lots, West Virginia (7--1, 2--1) seems to have gained traction in the race for the Big East crown. The Mountaineers are the only team ranked in the NCAA's top dozen in rushing offense, scoring offense, total offense, pass defense, scoring defense and total defense, and their 13th consecutive victory over Rutgers did much to validate them as one of the nation's most well-rounded squads.
You're not alone if you haven't heard much about West Virginia's defense, which boasts nary a household name. "The defense is the second thing that's looked at on our team, and we try to take advantage of that," says middle linebacker Reed Williams, who on Saturday had a game-high 13 tackles. "It's hard not to overlook our defense with those two guys in the backfield."
Those two guys are, of course, quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton, the pair of shifty juniors who share an apartment, the bulk of the offensive workload and virtually all of the Mountaineers' allotment of the spotlight. Slaton and White were at their best against Rutgers: White ran for 156 yards and passed for 144 more, while Slaton had 124 total yards and three touchdowns.
It is that overlooked defense, however, that might fuel not only No. 7 West Virginia's push for the conference championship but also its reemergence into the national title picture. While the unit allowed Scarlet Knights tailback Ray Rice to roll for 142 yards, it kept him from breaking a big play (his longest run went for 15 yards) and yielded little else. The Mountaineers held quarterback Mike Teel, who came in averaging 285 passing yards per game, to 47 yards through three quarters and intercepted him twice in the fourth. They also seemed to intimidate an offense that had averaged 32 points a game: Rutgers receivers dropped at least a half-dozen balls. "I think it got in the back of their minds [that] they were expecting to be hit every time they caught the ball," said defensive back Vaughn Rivers. None of this came as a surprise to Slaton. "They've been playing like that all year," he said of the defense. "I practice against them every day, so I know how hard they can hit."
West Virginia's defense still must hold up against Louisville's explosive offense on Nov. 8 in Morgantown. Two weeks later, sandwiched between tilts against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers host No. 16 UConn in what might turn out to be the Big East's de facto title game.
Still, White insists he isn't thinking BCS. "It's a competitive conference," he said on Saturday as the sun began to peek through the clouds. "Who knows what's going to happen week to week?" The Mountaineers aren't out of the Big East muck yet, but with their gang-tackling defense and their pair of offensive stars, they seem headed that way.
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While the Big East continues to build its football reputation, the league can't seem to shake its basketball identity. With its 22--15 win over South Florida last Saturday, Connecticut (7--1, 3--0) stayed alone in first place and earned its first national ranking (16th) in the process. As they have all season, the defense (ranked 10th nationally, up from 82nd last year) and the running game keyed the Huskies' victory. UConn held the Bulls to 10 points on five trips into the red zone, while Andre Dixon (above) had his fourth 100-yard outing in six games, rushing for 167 yards on 32 carries.
Huskies coach Randy Edsall, who has led the program's six-year transformation from I-AA to the Top 25, attributes UConn's defensive strength to improved depth up front. "We have more speed on defense than we had a year ago," he adds. The Huskies have to keep playing tough D if they hope to stay atop the Big East: Upcoming foes Rutgers, Cincinnati and West Virginia have potent offenses.
SIMON BRUTY (RICE)
ROLLING The defense kept Rice in check while White (5) had 300 yards of offense.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (WHITE)
[See caption above]
BOB CHILD/AP (DIXON)