CINCINNATI (AP) -The end of the season is setting up perfectly for No. 4 West Virginia.
A 28-23 victory over upstart Cincinnati on Saturday night knocked the Bearcats out of the Big East title hunt. Only two teams are left: the Mountaineers and Connecticut, who will essentially play for the championship next week in Morgantown, W.Va.
``It means a lot,'' said quarterback Pat White, who has been the catalyst the last three games. ``We have home-field advantage on our side going into it.''
Could there be even more ahead?
Losses by No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Oklahoma opened the way for the Mountaineers (9-1, 4-1) to move up one spot from No. 5 in the AP poll released Sunday. Two teams ahead of them - No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Missouri - play next week.
Suddenly, the Big East title isn't the only thought in mind. Their climb might not be over.
It's the last thing they want to think about. First, there's a championship to be decided.
``This week is all about the Big East,'' coach Rich Rodriguez said. ``We're trying to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl. Our guys who were there two years ago want to get back.''
The Mountaineers won the league in 2005, when White and running back Steve Slaton were just getting started.
Since then, Slaton has been the Mountaineers' marquee player, breaking school records during his three-year career. He rushed for a school-record 1,733 yards, and was considered their biggest threat coming into the season.
He opened with four consecutive 100-yard games, then only reached triple figures once in the next five. Defenses were determined not to let him ruin their day.
As a result, White and running back Owen Schmitt have taken on bigger roles. Schmitt ran 4 yards for West Virginia's first touchdown against Cincinnati (8-3, 3-3), and White carried a career-high 27 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns.
``The ball's been spread around more,'' said left tackle Ryan Stanchek. ``It's not Steve's fault. With Pat and Owen back there, it's a luxury for us.''
Slaton had a breakthrough of sorts: His first 100-yard effort in three games. He finished with 103 yards on 23 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that made it 28-10.
``He ran strong,'' White said. ``That's the Steve I want to see.''
In the last three games, White has done most of the heavy lifting. He has run 22, 24 and 27 times, by far the heaviest three-game load of his career.
``I feel pretty good,'' White said. ``I try to get down more than I used to. I'm not taking as many hits as I used to.''
He had two late fumbles that gave Cincinnati a chance to rally. One led to a punt, the other to a touchdown that cut it to 28-23 with 2:26 left. West Virginia recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
White had 295 yards overall with his running and passing, the sixth-highest total of his career. He passed Vince Young and moved into 11th place for career rushing by a quarterback with 3,129 yards.
``I think he played like the Big East offensive player of the year - minus the fumbles,'' Rodriguez said.
Playing in the biggest game in their history, the Bearcats couldn't stop White or match him. Ben Mauk threw for 323 yards and ran for 52 more. Marcus Barnett caught 10 passes for 210 yards, the fourth-highest total in Cincinnati history.
``We were right with them,'' Mauk said.
In a sense, it amounted to progress. The Bearcats were blown out the last two times they played West Virginia, which is 14-1-1 against Cincinnati.
``West Virginia is the bar in this league,'' coach Brian Kelly said. ``We found out a lot about our team. We found out what it takes to be a Big East champion.''
West Virginia already knows.
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