ATLANTA – In a game filled with playmakers, in a game filled with record-setting performances from both teams, in a game that had a lot riding on Eastern football, it’s hard to believe that the 2006 Nokia Sugar Bowl came down to a skinny 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound punter. But Phil Brady’s 10-yard fake punt on fourth and six at the Georgia 48 gave underdog West Virginia the first down it needed to run out the clock in an unbelievable 38-35 upset of No. 8-ranked Georgia Monday night in the Georgia Dome.
In reality, it’s almost fitting that the upstart Mountaineers, playing in a rag-tag conference many talking heads thought didn’t even deserve to have a BCS berth, won the game with Brady’s legs. Yet Brady’s legs weren’t the only ones moving against Georgia’s defense.
True freshman Steve Slaton broke Tony Dorsett’s Sugar Bowl record with 204 yards and his pair of 52-yard touchdown runs broke the back of a Georgia defense that came into the game ranked fourth in the country.
“This is obviously one of the biggest (wins in school history),” said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. “I think more because a lot of people didn’t expect it and that we were playing basically in their home environment – their home state.”
Slaton, the game’s MVP, helped West Virginia accumulate 382 yards against a Georgia defense that came into the game giving up just 124 yards per game against an SEC schedule. Fullback Owen Schmitt managed 82 yards on nine carries and quarterback Pat White run 24 times for 77 yards and completed 11 of 14 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
“This gives us a lot of confidence but I don’t think anybody is still going to give us any respect,” said White.
“I feel how he feels,” added Slaton. “I still think we don’t get the respect that we need.”
SEC champion Georgia (11-3) certainly didn’t respect West Virginia at the game’s outset. West Virginia scored the first four times it had the football and built a 28-0 second-quarter lead before the Bulldogs finally came to life, outscoring WVU 21-3 over the remaining 15 minutes of the first half.
A pair of long touchdown runs by Kregg Lumpkin (34) and Thomas Brown (52) got the Bulldogs to within 14 points, and a late Shockley to Pope four-yard pass pulled Georgia to within 10, 31-21, right before the end of the half.
A couple of Georgia turnovers helped West Virginia’s 28-point first quarter. After Slaton got WVU on the board first with a 52-yard TD and White found Darius Reynaud open between two Georgia defenders for a four-yard TD, the Mountaineers were in business once again when Danny Ware’s fumble was recovered by Dee McCann at the UGA 26.
Five plays later, Reynaud took a flanker reverse 13 yards into the end zone to give WVU a 21-0 lead.
The WVU defense came up with another turnover right at the end of the first quarter when Shockley was hit by blitzing safety Mike Lorello from his blindside and his fumble was recovered by Marc Magro at the 50.
On third and two at the Georgia 31, White got 13 yards to the 18. Then Slaton found a crease and raced 18 yards untouched into the end zone to give the Mountaineers a 28-0 lead with just 14:10 expired in the second quarter.
The Mountaineers were threatening again at the Georgia seven with 6:23 left in the half, but Slaton was thrown for a three-yard loss trying to get a first down on third and one. Rodriguez chose to send out kicker Pat McAfee, who converted a 27-yard field goal.
By halftime the two teams combined for 52 points and 605 yards of offense. The 52 points broke a BCS-record of 48 points scored by USC and Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl.
Things got really interesting with 1:51 left in the third quarter when Shockley took advantage of single coverage on A.J. Bryant to convert a 34-yard touchdown pass. Brandon Cuotu’s PAT pulled Georgia to within a field goal of a tie.
After an exchange of possessions to begin the fourth quarter, West Virginia began its game-winning drive at its one five yard line after Gordon Ely-Kelso’s outstanding 51-yard punt bounced out of bounds.
A pair of Steve Slaton runs left the Mountaineers looking at a third and 10 in front of the Georgia crowd. White slipped free of the line of scrimmage on a quarterback draw and powered his way for 13 yards to the WVU 18. Two more runs presented Rich Rodriguez with another third-down decision at the Mountaineer 27.
Once again Rodriguez chose to keep it on the ground and Schmitt was able to bull his way for four yards to keep the sticks moving. A key play in the drive came on second and 10 at the 31 when Ely-Kelso was flagged for a face-mask penalty on White’s two-yard run. The walk-off put the football at the West Virginia 48 and on the next play Slaton slipped free on another zone run, got into the secondary and once again out-ran Georgia’s safety for his third touchdown. The score gave West Virginia a more comfortable 38-28 advantage.
Shockley, who finished the game completing 20 of 33 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns, slipped free of West Virginia’s fierce pass rush and hit a wide open Bryan McClendon for a 43-yard touchdown.
“I feel good for the state of West Virginia but it’s been a tough day,” said Rodriguez in reference to the mine explosion in Upshur County. “I’m not sure many of you are aware that the coal mining business is a big deal in the state of West Virginia; my father’s a miner – my brother and uncles – and to have 13 miners trapped. That was weighing on everybody’s hearts. Obviously our prayers are with them.”
The victory was West Virginia’s first in January since the 1948 team beat Texas Western in the Sun Bowl. It also equals the 1988 and 1993 teams with the most wins in school history (11). But more importantly, it can be debated that West Virginia’s win might have saved the Big East Football Conference as we know it.
Big East associate commissioner John Paquette, wearing an ear-to-ear grin while congratulating West Virginia coaches and players on the field Monday night, didn’t utter those exact words. But from the looks of his smile he was probably thinking it.
“This one,” Paquette said, “was huge!”
It certainly was.
WV – Slaton 52 run (McAfee kick)
WV – Reynaud 3 pass from White (Reynaud kick)
WV – Reynaud 13 run (McAfee kick)
WV – Slaton 18 run (McAfee kick)
UG – Lumpkin 34 run (Coutu kick)
UG – Brown 52 run (Coutu kick)
WV – McAfee 27 FG
UG – Pope 4 pass from Shockley (Coutu kick)
UG – Bryant 34 pass from Shockley (Coutu kick)
WV – Slaton 52 run (McAfee kick)
UG – McClendon 43 pass from Shockley (Coutu kick)
Rushing: WV – Slaton 26-204, Schmitt 9-82, White 24-77, Reynaud 1-13, Brady 1-10, Team 2-minus 4, Total 63-382; UGA – Brown 9-78, Shockley 8-71, Lumpkin 9-67, Ware 1-6, Southerland 1-2, Total 28-224.
Passing: WV – White 11-14-0-120-1; UGA – Shockley 20-33-0-277-3.
Receiving: WV – Reynaud 6-48, Myles 4-64, Slaton 1-8, Total 11-120; UGA – Pope 6-50, Massaquoi 4-43, McClendon 3-72, Raley 2-41, Brown 2-22, Lumpkin 2-15, Bryant 1-34, Total 20-277.