Maryland was hoping for a blackout. The stadium was sold out. West Virginia delivered the knockout. Junior running back Steve Slaton rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns, and the Mountaineer defense played its best game of the young season as No. 4 West Virginia fought to a 31-14 victory over the Maryland Terrapins.
The Mountaineers, winners of their first two against Western Michigan and Marshall, capitalized on an early Maryland turnover, as the Terrapins fumbled the first offensive snap of the game. Pat White got loose two plays later for a 22-yard touchdown run, setting the tone for what would be another big night on the ground for Rich Rodriguez's offense. The nation's finest ground attack racked up 353 rushing yards against Maryland, with superstar Slaton being supported by an ensemble cast including fullback Owen Schmitt (four carries, 46 yards) and freshman Noel Devine (five carries, 136 yards).
As good as West Virginia's offense was it was Jeff Casteel's defense that stole the show in front of a nationwide television audience. Casteel's often-criticized defenders held the Maryland offense to just 269 total yards on the night, and more importantly held the black-clad hosts out of the end zone. Senior running back Keon Lattimore tied the game at 7-7 with a four yard run at the 9:53 mark of the first quarter. After Maryland's first real offensive drive resulted in Lattimore's touchdown, the Mountaineer defense buckled down both on the line, and in the secondary. The Terps added a late touchdown pass from quarterback Jordan Steffy to Danny Oquendo to make the final score much closer than the game itself.
For much of the night, the Mountaineers completely out-classed Ralph Friedgen's ballclub on both sides of the ball. Early on, the Terps keyed on Slaton's outside zone runs. Schmitt's 44-yard jaunt up the middle in the second quarter made Friedgen's defense think twice about containing Slaton on the outside.
"It was just an option play," Schmitt said of his big run, which oddly enough did not set up one of West Virginia's five scores on the night. "The end didn't pinch, so Pat just gave me the ball. It was pretty open. That's the only time I really get a chance to run, when I don't get caught.
Just as they did a week ago against Marshall, the Mountaineers continued to pound the ball between the tackles with a variety of offensive weapons. For the third week in a row, freshman sensation Noel Devine proved to everyone watching that he is just as dangerous as both Slaton and White, West Virginia's bona fide pair of Heisman Trophy contenders.
"We're just scratching the surface with Noel," Schmitt warned. Added Friedgen, "I didn't realize he was that fast. He might be just as fast as Slaton. He's pretty illusive, too."
Devine, Slaton, and their offensive teammates delivered when it mattered the most, converting on five of six third down and long situations.
"That's something we have to get better at," said Friedgen. "We play two good downs, and then they make a play on us. In third and seven or less, you should have a chance offensively. Third and ten, you should win most of those on defense."
On the other side of the ball, West Virginia was just as dominant on third down. The Mountaineers held Maryland to just five conversions in 13 third down attempts just five days after limiting Marshall to five of 15. Quarterback Jordan Steffy looked like a deer in the headlights for most of the night against the blue and gold defenders, led by Reed Williams, Mortty Ivy, and Johnny Dingle.
"We just played West Virginia football," said Dingle, who finished with six tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss. "That's playing fast, playing physical, playing smart, and attacking."
"I'm really proud of our defense," added Rodriguez, himself a former Mountaineer defender. "I thought they did a great job, and am much better job on third down. They put pressure on the quarterback and really tackled well. We have some talented players."
Devine and Slaton became the first pair of backs to rush for 100 yards each against UM since Virginia runners Alvin Pearman and Wali Lundy pulled the trick in November of 2004. Devine's 76-yard run in the third quarter tied for the longest non-scoring run in Mountaineer history. Jim Moss set the record in a 1962 contest against William & Mary.
The scariest part in all of this? It could have been much, much worse for Maryland. The Mountaineers were not exceptionally crisp in the first half on offense, and led just 14-7 heading into the locker room. West Virginia committed four penalties in the opening frame, and were unable to score on a second quarter drive after long runs by Schmitt and Slaton placed the ball inside the five yardline. In the second half, though, the slash, bash, and dash of Mountaineer football was in full effect. ,p>"We were disappointed at halftime with the execution offensively," Rodriguez admitted. "Since we had the ball first (to start the second half), we knew that we had to get that first drive in there and fortunately we were able to do that."
At one point, Devine had two carries for 107 yards. On his third carry, he picked up 18 yards while running through a 15-yard personal foul facemask penalty by a Maryland defender.
"I'm very happy to get out of here with a win," said Rodriguez, who has won four straight against the Terrapins after an 0-4 start. We knew it was going to be a tough environment. Both teams played extremely hard."
"Obviously, I'm disappointed with the loss," Friedgen said. "West Virginia's obviously a very good football team with a lot of speed. I think our kids played hard and they kind of got worn down."
Whichever way you slice it, the Mountaineers leave College Park at 3-0 on the season, passing the first big test of 2007.