Over the past three seasons, Rutgers football has undergone a complete transformation from Big East bottom feeder to conference championship contender. On Saturday in Piscataway, though, West Virginia showed the Scarlet Knights that despite their improvement, they still can't beat the Mountaineers. White threw for 144 yards and added another 156 yards and a touchdown on the ground to lead the Blue and Gold to win No. 7 on the year.
Despite White's gaudy statistics and superior play, the win was the result of total domination on both sides of the ball for the red-hot Mountaineers, now winners of three straight after a September loss at South Florida. West Virginia's defense set the tone early with a three-and-out, and repeatedly made big plays in big situations to thwart any hopes of another RU upset after the Knights slayed previously undefeated South Florida a week ago.
White's partner in crime, junior running back Steve Slaton led the touchdown parade with three scores, none more impressive than his 38-yard scamper in the first quarter in which he reversed field and accelerated towards the goal line behind a pair of beautiful downfield blocks by wideouts Tito Gonzales and Darius Reynaud.
The Mountaineers got all they could handle from Rutgers running back Ray Rice, yielding 142 yards to the junior workhorse, who toted the pigskin 30 times. Rice went over the 1,000 mark on his first carry, becoming the first Rutgers runner to top four digits in three consecutive seasons.
Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, Rice had absolutely no help from any of his offensive mates. Quarterback Mike Teel, battling a thumb injury, completed just 14 of 30 passes for 128 yards against West Virginia's superb pass defense, ranked tops in the Big East Conference. Safeties Boogie Allen and Ryan Mundy picked off fourth quarter pass attempts by the junior, who was not helped by a plethora of drops by Rutgers receivers.
The lopsided score may point to a West Virginia blowout, but in reality the game turned on a pair of disastrous sequences for the Scarlet Knights. The first came early in the second quarter after the Mountaineers had seemingly shot themselves in the foot. Facing a third down and seven from the RU 32, Mike Dent's shotgun snap sailed over the head of White, who fell on the ball 23 yards behind the line of scrimmage, apparently ending any scoring hopes for that particular possession. On the very next play, Pat McAfee's rugby punt hit off the back foot of RU defensive back Ramy Nubani, subsequently landing right in front of a fortuitous Mortty Ivy. Six plays later, White dove into the end zone, fumbling the ball in the process but recovering for West Virginia's second touchdown, and a 14-0 lead over the suddenly shell-shocked Scarlet Knights.
In the second half, another big momentum shift ultimately doomed Greg Schiano's club, and took the life out of the mostly red-clad crowd of 43,620. With the Mountaineers facing a third down and long from their own 22, the Scarlet Knight defense brought the house after White. For a split second, it looked as though White would be sacked, but the poised signal caller dumped the ball to the perimeter where Slaton was waiting in space. Junior left tackle Ryan Stanchek hustled ahead of Slaton, laying a beautiful block on an oblivious defender in the process. The block sprung Slaton for 51-yards. The junior would cap off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, marking the 50th rushing touchdown of his career. Slaton is now just the second player in Big East history to hit the half-century mark in rushing scores, with former Virginia Tech great Lee Suggs holding the record of 56.
As good as Slaton and White were – and they were magnificent – West Virginia's defense was just as lethal. The Scarlet Knight offense, averaging nearly 477 yards per game prior to Saturday's showdown, was held to 314 total yards. Teel and the RU passing attack were averaging nearly 300 yards per game, but managed just 130 against West Virginia's confident secondary. Rice certainly got his yards, but was held to a long of just 15, and was shut out of the end zone for the first time all season.
"They played a great game," said Rutgers receiver Tiquan Underwood, who caught seven passes for 59 yards. "Their defense was all over the place. Our motto is to keep chopping wood, and today we got out-Rutgersed."
"We got outplayed," added Rice, who despite the loss became the first opposing player since January's Gator Bowl to rush for more than 100 yards against West Virginia (Tashard Choice of Georgia Tech was the last to pull the trick). "They came out here and executed and we didn't."
West Virginia's starting linebacking corps of Reed Williams, Mortty Ivy, and Marc Magro combined for 32 stops on the day, with Williams having a game-high 13 stops. The Mountaineer secondary was credited with five pass break-ups on the afternoon, and held the Knights' other top receiver – sophomore Kenny Britt – to just a pair of fourth quarter catches.
"A lot of things went wrong today, but at no one point did I feel like our football team gave in," Schiano said.
The difference maker, clearly, was White, who had what was unequivocally his best game of the season, topping 300 total yards for the first time in 2007 and the fourth time in his brilliant three-year career. As a redshirt freshman sharing time behind center with Adam Bednarik, the Daphne, Ala. native saw the field for only a handful of plays in West Virginia's 2005 victory here at Rutgers Stadium. Last season in Morgantown, White was a last-minute scratch from the starting lineup after his high ankle sprain proved to be too much pain for even the tough-as-nails Mountaineer leader to play through. Needless to say, the junior playmaker left quite the impression on the opposition following his first extensive action against the Scarlet Knights.
"There is such a fine line at this level when playing against upper-echelon teams in that if you're not right on point, you're in for a long day," said Schiano, who drops to 0-7 against West Virginia in his time at Rutgers. The Mountaineers are the only Big East foe that Schiano has yet to defeat. "Even when you are right on point, you may not win. Certainly we were just a little bit off in everything we were doing."
The weather, as it usually is when West Virginia travels to Piscataway, was overcast, dreary, and full of rain. On the field, though, the play of Slaton, White, and their teammates sent a message as clear as a mid-summer afternoon: the Mountaineers are for real.