With beautiful autumn weather, brand new gold jerseys, and homecoming festivities, Mountaineer fans had plenty to celebrate on Saturday in Morgantown. A first quarter filled with big plays on both sides of the ball gave the sold out crowd even more reasons to cheer as West Virginia cruised to a 38-13 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Things nearly got off to a disastrous start for the Mountaineers, when star tailback Steve Slaton muffed the opening kickoff from Bulldog kicker Adam Carlson. The Bulldogs fell on the loose pigskin, but it was all for naught as a member of the kickoff team had gone offsides prior to the ball being kicked. Slaton handled the second kickoff just fine.
A year ago in Starkville, Pat White led off the fourth quarter with a 46-yard touchdown run. West Virginia's big-play threat wasted no time getting on the board this year, faking a handoff to Slaton and dashing 64-yards to paydirt before many of the gold-clad Mountaineer fans even reached their seats. Though it was the first play of the game, White's big play set the tone early for his Mountaineer teammates.
White's touchdown set the tone for what would prove to be a very productive first quarter for the WVU offense. West Virginia scored touchdowns on all four first quarter possessions, including a 26-yard run by Slaton which broke a tie with Ira Rodgers and Avon Cobourne for career rushing touchdowns.
At the same time, West Virginia's vastly improved defense was nothing to sneeze at either. Jeff Casteel's troops limited the Bulldogs to just nine total plays in the first quarter, and recovered a pair of fumbles to set up additional scores by the Mountaineers. The first turnover came with West Virginia leading 14-0 courtesy of an Owen Schmitt 12-yard touchdown reception from White. Looking to respond to the early adversity, MSU put the ball in the hands of bullish tailback Anthony Dixon. Linebacker Reed Williams jarred the ball loose, and the pigskin fell right into the waiting arms of Marc Magro, who rumbled 39 yards to the Bulldog 16 before being dragged down by a host of Mississippi State players.
At the end of the quarter, fellow linebacker Mortty Ivy scooped up another MSU fumble and ran it all the way back for a touchdown, but an illegal block in the back during Ivy's return negated the second defensive score of the season for West Virginia. By the time the opening frame came to an end, MSU's Bulldog mascot could watch no longer, as even he was seemingly looking ahead to next week.
West Virginia's 28-0 first quarter lead would soon grow by three, courtesy of a booming 42-yard field goal by Pat McAfee. The 28 points represented the most scored in a single quarter by the Mountaineers all season. The last time West Virginia scored that many points in a quarter came in the opening frame of last season's win over Maryland at Mountaineer Field.
With a lopsided lead and no comeback for the Bulldogs in site, the Mountaineers may have let their foot off the gas pedal just a bit in the final three quarters. White, still not 100 percent following a chest injury two weeks ago against Syracuse, did not see the field in the second half. He finished 8-12 through the air for 61 yards and two touchdowns in addition to a second quarter interception. The junior playmaker also added 89 yards on the ground despite just five carries, including the 64-yard touchdown.
Despite his brief cameo in Saturday's action, White still had a humongous impact in the game, according to MSU head coach Sylvester Croom.
"We don't have one guy that can change the game by himself," said the former Alabama standout. "We know they got two (Slaton and White), and Jarrett Brown could be three, and Reynaud could be four."
In White's absence, sophomore back-up Jarrett Brown again got the call, and again performed well. The big Floridian threw for just 23 yards, but added a touchdown to Reynaud in addition to his 38 yards on the ground.
"Jarrett has a lot of athletic ability," said WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez. "He has a lot to work on, but he is so talented and is such a team guy. We are going to keep pushing Jarrett, because the way we run our quarterbacks, we need two or three."
After carrying the ball just 15 times against Syracuse, Slaton found himself with the pigskin early and often on Saturday. Slaton finished with 127 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, getting back on track after two consecutive games with less than 100 yards. Slaton now has 20 career 100-yard games, including 12 at Mountaineer Field.
"We gave Steve more work tonight from (the win at Syracuse) where he only had 15 carries," said Rodriguez, adding that the gameplan was to get Slaton more involved in the run game. Freshman backup Noel Devine dressed, but did not play after an excused absence from a practice this week.
With Saturday's win, the Mountaineers close out the non-conference portion of the schedule at a perfect 5-0. More importantly, they head into Rutgers next weekend for a big-time Big East showdown with no additional injuries to a squad that has been dinged up at times throughout the year. To be certain, West Virginia will need all the healthy bodies they can get in order to fend off the talented Scarlet Knights in what could be an elimination game for the Big East championship.
"We will be playing some of the most talented athletes in the country in Rutgers, and it's at their place," Rodriguez said. "I was thinking about that game as I was walking off the field, and I hope my players were too."
At times in the second half, one could argue that the Mountaineers were doing just that. At the end of the day, they came out with a solid victory over a BCS-conference foe, putting on a 15-minute highlight film on both sides of the ball, while taking care of the task at hand.
"I didn't see this one coming."