A Drive to Compete

A true test of how a program is perceived on a national level can be conducted simply by walking through a city decked out in a particular team's gear. The comments and questions that you get from people you pass are usually a strong indicator of what the average football fan thinks of when they hear a program's name.

Walking through Atlanta it is not very difficult to uncover the perceptions of the Mountaineer football team. "Wow, those two freshmen are pretty good. That quarterback can really run. Where did that running back come from?" Those are the comments West Virginia fans will probably be hearing in their dreams by the time their trip to Atlanta is over. It is pretty clear that the country respects Pat White and Steve Slaton, and the story on how the Mountaineers' two biggest offensive threats came out of nowhere to lead the team to a Big East championship has been run by every news outlet covering the 2006 Nokia Sugar Bowl.

But when the West Virginia coaching staff reads about how these two players just woke up one morning filled with athletic ability that they had never had before and suddenly took control, they cannot help but chuckle. To them the abilities of White and Slaton were never a big secret.

"With Pat we saw it in practice," said West Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee. "Last year we scrimmaged the freshmen quite a bit, and he would always take the team down and score. So we knew we had something special.

"With Steve we knew after we signed him. But like most freshmen coming in he wasn't quite ready. He had a lot to learn. But every week I just kept telling him, ‘Steve, be patient. We have a plan for you.'"

Being patient, though, was not easy for either one of them. White, a redshirt freshman, had never taken a single snap in a live game prior to the 2005 season, so sophomore Adam Bednarik, who had seen some previous action, was the starter. White always saw action, as head coach Rich Rodriguez found a way to rotate the two signal callers, but he was never on the field as much as he had hoped. Slaton was also relegated to the sidelines in many of the early-season games, as veterans like Jason Colson and Pernell Williams got most of the carries. White and Slaton supported their teammates and were always ready when called upon, but their competitive drive drove them crazy as they had to stand and watch.

"I remember some times in the beginning of the year when I was impatient and really wanted to get in there and play," said Slaton. "I felt that I was the best running back here, and I wanted to prove it."

On Oct. 1, five games into the season when West Virginia met Virginia Tech at Mountaineer field, he finally got that opportunity.

"When we played Virginia Tech we decided it was time to turn him loose and see what he could do," remembered Magee. "He had been working hard and he had shown us that he could make some plays. It was just time to give him that chance."

Slaton ended that contest with 90 yards on just 11 carries, and it only got better from there. The next week against Rutgers the eventual Big East Rookie of the Year rushed for 139 yards on 25 carries, and he is now looking at surpassing the 1,000 yard mark with 924 yards on 179 attempts. It is certainly fair to say that he made the most of his opportunity.

"I am happy that they saved me and then put me in there when I was ready," said Slaton, reflecting back on the whole situation. "I felt in the beginning of the year that I would be sitting on the sidelines watching and learning the system, but all of the hard work that I put in eventually paid off."

Although the end result was the same, White had to wait a little longer for the playing time he had been looking for. Seven games into the season, when WVU was facing Louisville at home, he was still splitting time with Bednarik. When the Bethlehem, Pa., native went out late in the game with an injury, though, White proceeded to lead his team back from a 24-7 deficit to score one of the biggest comebacks in school history and keep the Mountaineers' perfect conference record in tact. Since then the job has been his, and like his counterpart he has done all he can do to make sure it stays that way.

As if quarterbacking a team to a 10-1 season was not enough to prove his worth, White also has plenty of numbers to support his case. He has completed 54 of 100 passes for 708 yards, respectable numbers on their own, but it is his elusiveness on the ground that really makes him special. Like Slaton, White is also approaching the 1,000 yard mark with 875 yards on 107 carries, and his production has increased with every game.

"People had to worry so much about Slaton and (Owen) Schmitt (WVU's fullback), so much that it made it a lot easier on me," said a humble White. "I think that has been a big part of my success."

So with the starting jobs in hand and the eyes of the nation focused on their every move, White and Slaton must finally be where they want to be, right? Not so fast. It was their competitive drive that got them to this point, and those traits have certainly not been erased.

"They compete in everything they do," said Magee with a smile made for a Jello commercial. "They are always competing on the practice field. They even have a competition to see who can get up first after stretching."

"We do that just to help make ourselves better," explained Slaton. "I think that helps practices go along a little bit better. A lot of guys are starting to catch onto that, but Pat and I started it."

Who is winning that competition, though, is still a mystery.

"I don't know who is leading," said Slaton with a raised eyebrow. "It might be a tie. He won on (Thursday), but I am going to try to get him back the rest of the week."

That competition, however, means very little compared to the one at the front of both White and Slaton's minds. On Monday they will take on Georgia in the Sugar Bowl – West Virginia's first ever BCS game – and it is on that stage that they really want to prove how far they have come.

"They are an SEC school, and nobody expects us to do anything against them," said White of the SEC champion Bulldogs. "But we know that we can go out and play with anybody and we are ready to play. If we can get the run going, then that is what we will do. If we have to pass it, then we will pass it. We are going to do whatever it takes to win."

If WVU could accomplish that task it would mean a great deal to a conference which needs the Mountaineers to pull the upset to improve its standing in the BCS agreement. That weight on the shoulders would be enough to make most freshmen run for the hills, but for White it is not even an issue.

"I try not to get into that too much," he explained. "I am doing something that I love, and I have been doing it since I was a little guy. So it is really not a big deal to me at all. I don't get nervous. I get anxious, I get butterflies and I get excited to play, but it is something that I enjoy doing. I just want to go out and have fun."

For West Virginia fans watching this duo has been nothing but fun. But there is still one big question left. What will the freshmen do for an encore?


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