ATLANTA - Georgia had the home-field advantage. West Virginia had the chip on its shoulder.
Steve Slaton rushed for a record 204 yards and the No. 11 Mountaineers gave a much-needed boost to the beleaguered Big East, upsetting eighth-ranked Georgia 38-35 Monday night in the first Sugar Bowl played outside of New Orleans.
“I think we took to heart some of the criticism of our league and the fact that no one was predicting us to win,” West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Basically, we were playing in their home environment, their home state.”
West Virginia (11-1) stunned all those red-clad fans at the Georgia Dome by jumping to a 28-0 lead by the opening minute of the second quarter. The Bulldogs (10-3) rallied, twice closing within a field goal in the second half, but they couldn’t finish one of the greatest comebacks in bowl history.
Give most of the credit to Slaton, who wasn’t even the Mountaineers’ best freshman runner in fall camp and didn’t crack the starting lineup until the sixth game of the season. Georgia certainly had no answer for the speedy back, who squirted through big holes and left defenders such as All-American safety Greg Blue in the dust on a pair of 52-yard touchdown runs.
Slaton scored three touchdowns and eclipsed the previous Sugar Bowl rushing record, a 202-yard performance by Pitt’s Tony Dorsett in a national championship-clinching victory over Georgia in 1977.
“It was just our speed,” Slaton said. “They couldn’t match up with us.”
The Mountaineers saved their biggest surprise for the end. Georgia was poised to get the ball back when West Virginia dropped back to punt on fourth-and-6 at the Bulldogs 48. Phil Brady hauled in the long snap but took off running, gaining 10 yards on the fake and a game-clinching first down.
“We were definitely playing for a return,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We didn’t think they would do that. Give them a lot of credit. It takes a lot of nerve to do that.”
The last of Slaton’s touchdowns gave the Mountaineers a seemingly comfortable 38-28 lead with 8½ minutes to go. D.J. Shockley brought Georgia back with his third touchdown pass, a 34-yarder to Bryan McClendon with 5:33 left, but never got his hands on the ball again.
“West Virginia did a heck of a job jumping on us,” Richt said. “The only consolation is we didn’t lay down and die.”
The 72nd Sugar Bowl was shifted to Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, flooding the Big Easy and leaving the Superdome in no shape to host a Pop Warner game, much less a major bowl.
While poignant, the Sugar was the least heralded of the BCS bowls, a distant fourth to the Fiesta matchup between Notre Dame and Ohio State, the Joe Paterno-vs.-Bobby Bowden showdown at the Orange and, of course, the national championship game between No. 1 Southern California and No. 2 Texas at the Rose Bowl.
West Virginia also did its part to stymie criticism of the Big East. OK, so the league isn’t as strong since Miami and Virginia Tech bolted to the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the Mountaineers proved they’re one of the best teams in the country.
They certainly came out with something to prove, facing the champion of the powerful Southeastern Conference just 75 miles from its Athens campus.
“I think West Virginia was extremely excited,” Richt said. “They brought a little more emotion in the beginning.”
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