Taking Aim: The End Game

Patrick White and Steve Slaton ambled into the Puskar Center, 2,900 yards and 32 scores between them, the co-conspirators in West Virginia's grand scheme, both in the spread offense and the Mountaineers' chance at a national championship.

The softball, can-o-corn question was posed to the chief and what has become WVU's little engine that could, a swift scatback stylist whose speed is second only to his quickness: What is the target, the object of aspiration and perspiration?

There being little more than one additional win – or two, with the 12-game slate this year – and one bigger contest to improve upon an 11-1 BCS season, the answer was obvious; With respect to the Big East, a national title is the bulls eye of these Mountaineers.

"It's the only goal I can think of," Slaton said. Added White, "We'll be ready."

Having pulled a General Sherman – a Sugar Bowl torching of Georgia that left little in their wake – the duo have been tagged as the "it" tandem for the 2006 college football season. There might be better players (Ohio State's Troy Smith/Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson), and surely there are more prototypically-styled athletes (Notre Dame's Brady Quinn/Louisville's Michael Bush). But none have a counterpart that compliments so completely, that appreciates what the other does, making it even better in an offense perfectly designed for their blessed gift o'speed that cannot be coached.

"I just hand the ball off," White said, "and watch Steve run." Yet White, the left-handed quarterback with an image of an Indian chief on his right arm, was second only to Heisman winner Reggie Bush last season with an 8.75-yards per carry average. He singled-footedly beat rival Pitt with 220 yards rushing, prompting Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt to famously utter: "We just have to run faster."

Not since two-time Heisman finalist Major Harris led West Virginia to the edge of a national championship in 1988 have Mountain State faithful experienced such a signalcalling mix of talent and potential. And Slaton – with his 4.35 speed, MVP-winning 204-yard Sugar Bowl rushing record and added strength and bulk (he went from 185 to 195 pounds) – has made Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen look like a fool for letting him go.

"I wish," said Notre Dame's Charlie Weiss of WVU to an Irish booster, "I had their tailback." Noted UGA's Mark Richt: "Their quarterback is special."

Add in a solid offense that returns nearly all its scoring and an odd stack defense whose front six are deep and which will infuse better talent despite losses in the secondary, and West Virginia is this year's Louisville, the sexy pick for a national championship.

The problem, as the Cards found and the quotes show, is that the Ace is no longer up the sleeve. The wrappers are off, the freshness of surprise gone for Slaton and White, who are trying to avoid the proverbial sophomore slump that befalls some frosh sensations. No longer will Louisville view safe a 17-point lead with eight minutes left. Mississippi State's Bulldogs likely learned from Georgia's that SEC smugness dissipates when one is down 28-0 in what amounts to a home game. And Big East teams will be gunning for these Mounties, who, if they follow previous examples of favored WVU teams in 1998 and 2004, could well end up in Toronto.

"We went 11-1 last year, so that leaves room for improvement," said center Dan Mozes, an Outland and Remington trophy candidate and the only other WVU player who can match the preseason hype of Slaton and White. "We know we can be better. The first (goal) is always to win the Big East. Win that and go to a BCS bowl, then to win all the games and play for a national championship. But that national championship is what we are looking to play for this year."

A goal that's scarily beyond players' control. They can't dictate rankings or what teams they do or do not play – notably no big BCS names. It starts Sept. 2 at Mountaineer Field with Marshall and ends at the same place exactly three months later against Rutgers. In between are 10 teams, six of which are looking to become this season's West Virginia, to knock-off the league faves and claim the conference's BCS bid and a chunk of national prestige for 2006 and ‘07.

"I don't even think about it," White said. "We just go play whoever we have to play, and go play Mountaineer football. No matter who we play or where we are, we'll play Mountaineer football."

Or try to. A goal that seems, at times, scarily out of other teams' control.

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