Ahead 14-7, yet with momentum threatening a shift at Mississippi State, No. 4 West Virginia dared the dogged Dawgs to stop its backfield of Steve Slaton, Patrick White and Owen Schmitt. And in the wake of the triple-decker attack in the first series of the second half – one that went 80 yards in eight plays – West Virginia had a 21-7 lead, the crowd had been quieted and the non-conference portion of the season sealed with a perfect 5-0 touch.
Slaton ran for 12 yards, then hit again for 15 to move over 100 yards. White's keeper for seven moved the ball past midfield. Schmitt rambled for 10 to the MSU 33. Then Slaton finished the push with four touches, the last two of which were a 15-yard swing pass and an 11-yard touchdown run that took all the intrigue out of the game save that of the bookies. It was Slaton's 24th career rushing score, which tied him for fourth all-time at WVU with former quarterback Rasheed Marshall (2000-04).
"That was really big to come out and score right off the bat," said Slaton, who finished with 185 of WVU's 314 rushing yards against a defense that had allowed an average of just 104.6 per game. "It was the play of that zone blocking that did it. The linemen got it and I made my reads."
Mississippi State had not allowed any more than 129 yards rushing by any foe this season. And only Tulane tailback Matt Forte came close to Slaton's output, running for 170 in a Sept. 16 MSU loss. The last time the Bulldogs allowed more than 300 rushing yards was against Arkansas in 2003.
"This game comes down to how we did not tackle well throughout the course of the game, namely the stretch where we needed to make stands," MSU head coach Sylvester Croom said. "We were somewhat overwhelmed by the speed they had."
Slaton's run provided a two-score edge with 10:22 left in the third quarter ballooned to a 42-14 final with a 46-yard White run – he finished with 76 yards and hit six of nine passes for 92 yards – and two other Mountaineer scores in the final three minutes that sealed West Virginia's second undefeated non-conference season in six years under head coach Rich Rodriguez and WVU's first road win over an SEC for since a 7-6 victory at Kentucky in 1969, when it went 10-1.
West Virginia finished with exactly 100 more yards than State. But the 406-306 tally was largely offset by MSU winning the time of possession (33:45 to 26:15) and total play (72 to 54) battles and by multiple personal foul flags on WVU that extended drives.
"It's hard to score when you don't have the ball," Rodriguez said. "I said I would be happy if we won by one point. I lied. It's hard to get any rhythm offensively when you're never on the field."
Indeed, the Mountaineers had five first half possession and scored twice. The last series came with just one minute left and sputtered inside Mississippi State territory when White threw a deep incompletion as the second quarter ended. WVU actually executed well on offense in the first half, but had little to show for it thanks to an 18:40 to 11:20 deficit in time of possession and running just 24 plays.
West Virginia was also was flagged 11 times for 132 yards, thrice on third downs on one Mississippi State possession that ended when MSU quarterback Omarr Conner threw incomplete on third and eight at the West Virginia 42-yard line. The bend-don't-break mantra was in evidence throughout, the bend mainly caused by undisciplined personal fouls.
"We'll get that fixed," Rodriguez said. "I know I have said that. But I will take 20 guys from offense and put them on defense if I have to."
The late scores, a five-yard run by Owen Schmitt that was the fullback's second of the game and Vaughn Rivers' 50-yard punt return made the spread appear worse than it was. State stayed in the game until White's run, and even then answered with tailback Anthony Dixon's one-yard plunge following a 10-play, 65-yard drive that made it 28-14 with five minutes left.
West Virginia turned Slaton, who asked for the ball more at halftime, loose again on the next series, gouging the defense for gains of 3, 27 and 4 yards to setup Schmitt's plunge that made it 35-14 for his first career multi-TD game. Slaton's 185 yard game was his fourth 100-yard game of the season and the ninth of his career, which is good for seventh all-time at WVU.
"Mississippi State had been pretty good against the run against some pretty good teams," Rodriguez said. "It was important for us to establish the run because that is our identity. We didn't do anything fancy. We just have good players who run the ball. But we never had the ball enough."
WVU ran just 24 first-half plays, gaining 185 net yards. State ran 35 plays for 145 yards and tallied an 11-9 edge in first downs. It gained just 21 yards on nine rushes, however, part of the bottling performance of WVU's defense, which recorded six sacks, its first six of the year. It also had two second-half interceptions to stop drives.
"They were huge," Rodriguez said of the interceptions. "It was good to get those. We had a couple other attempts to get a turnover (MSU fumbled four times but never lost one)."
The Mountaineers looked like they would cruise early. The odd stack set held MSU at the 31-yard line after a nine-play opening drive. The resulting missed field goal led to a five-play, 69-yard march capped by Schmitt's five-yard touchdown run up the middle. It marked the seventh straight game in which WVU has scored on its opening possession.
Wideout Darius Reynaud sparked the drive with 63 total yards, including a rush of 26 on West Virginia's second offensive play in which he darted through the defense. The other gainer was a 37-yard catch-and-run off a receiver screen in the flat that segued directly to Schmitt's scoring run.
After another lengthy MSU series that was prolonged three times by Mountaineer penalties on third down, the Bulldogs were held at their 42-yard line. WVU gained possession at the 25 and, four plays later, had it at MSU's 25. Another Slaton carry ended the first quarter and setup WVU at the State seven-yard line. Two plays later White kept on a pass-run option via a left-side rollout and dove into the corner for a 14-0 lead with 14:12 left in the opening half.
After the teams traded four possessions, State struck back with a 45-yard scoring pass from Conner to Tony Burks, who beat Antonio Lewis along the WVU sideline for the score. It was the second touchdown pass in three plays, the former score being called back because of a hold. It was the third long completion in four plays, the first gainer being a 45-yard strike, also to Burks, when WVU free safety Quinton Andrews pulled up short on the play, thinking he had an interception that actually carried over his head to MSU's junior wideout.
The score, which moved Conner – who went nine of 16 for 124 yards in the first half – into 10th all-time in MSU passing touchdowns, also cut the edge in half at 14-7 at the break.
White completed four of six passes for 73 yards. Slaton ran seven times for 78 yards, with a along of 25. Stallworth, who left the game in the middle of the second quarter with a knee bruise, led MSU in rushing with 35 yards on seven carries at the half. The other Bulldog tailbacks combined for 13 yards on six carries. Conner, who was sacked four times, left the game early in the second half because of a leg injury and did not return. MSU actually was down to its third-string quarterback by game's end.