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AROUND THE NATION | SUGAR BOWL

West Virginia Runs Down Georgia

January 03, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — In a year when the Sugar Bowl had to temporarily relocate from New Orleans, the Big East was supposed to be the Big Easy.

West Virginia, champion of the maligned Big East Conference, looked to be modest competition for a No. 8-ranked Georgia team playing in a sold-out Georgia Dome packed with red-clad fans, only 70 miles from the Georgia campus.

Then No. 11 West Virginia darted to a 28-point lead behind the striking speed of freshman tailback Steve Slaton and redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White, and Georgia fans quieted.

The Bulldogs didn't roll over, though, and the game became a rollicking big-play shootout before West Virginia won, 38-35, finishing its season 11-1 with the only loss to Virginia Tech.

"It gives West Virginia confidence, but I still don't think we'll get any respect," White said.

Slaton, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound true freshman, was the eye-catching star of the game, running for three touchdowns of 52 yards, 18 yards and 52 yards again to finish with 204 yards rushing, breaking the Sugar Bowl record set by Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett against Georgia in 1977.

"I think we'll still be sleepers," Slaton said. "I think we can compete for a national championship next year, but I just don't want to say too much now."

The Sugar Bowl was played outside New Orleans for the first time in its 72-year history after the Louisiana Superdome was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, when the stadium was used as a shelter that became a disaster of its own.

Sugar Bowl organizers hope the game will return to New Orleans next year, but with work on the Superdome targeted for completion Nov. 1, there are no assurances.

With Slaton darting up the middle and outracing Georgia defenders, White, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound left-handed quarterback, ran West Virginia's no-huddle spread offense so well that Georgia's well-regarded defense looked big and slow.

White finished with 77 yards rushing and 120 passing, completing 11 of 14 attempts.

West Virginia scored on its first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter, making big play after big play, and twice capitalized on Georgia fumbles.

"We were down 28 and I didn't know if anything good was going to happen tonight," Georgia Coach Mark Richt said.

The Bulldogs (10-3) began to rally with big plays of their own. Kregg Lumpkin scored on a 34-yard run and Thomas Brown broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run.

By halftime, West Virginia's lead was 31-21, and the 52 combined points set a record for a BCS game, breaking the mark of 48 by USC and Oklahoma in last year's Orange Bowl.

Georgia's defense seemed to solve some of the problems West Virginia's spread offense caused, not allowing the Mountaineers to score from the five-minute mark of the second quarter until the fourth quarter.

Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, shaky much of the first half, helped bring the Bulldogs back in the second with a 21-yard third-down run and a wobbling, 34-yard pass to A.J. Bryant in the end zone that trimmed the lead to three points, 31-28.

But Slaton's second 52-yard scoring run made the score 38-28 with 8:32 to play. Georgia came back again with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Bryan McClendon from Shockley, who finished with 277 yards passing and 71 rushing, that trimmed the lead to three with a little more than five minutes to play.

West Virginia, which thrived on the creativity of Coach Rich Rodriguez's offense, clinched the victory with a final, bold play, when it faked a punt for a 10-yard fourth-down gain to hold on to the ball with 1:45 left.

"Give them credit. It takes a lot of guts to do that," Richt said. "We played a great football team tonight. They executed beautifully. If I wasn't coaching against them, I would have enjoyed watching them."

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