CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -A season that began with Heisman Trophy expectations for Steve Slaton could still end up with the West Virginia running back playing for a national title.
That would be just fine with him.
``As long as you're winning, that's the only thing that really matters,'' Slaton said, repeating his season-long mantra. ``A lot of guys that are here aren't big-star guys.''
Slaton hasn't consistently been the feature back like he was last season, when he set a school-record with 1,744 yards rushing and earned All-American honors. Instead, he's split carries with quarterback Pat White, fullback Owen Schmitt and a pair of freshmen.
But after yielding personal success to that of the team, the 100th Backyard Brawl against Pittsburgh on Saturday gives Slaton a chance to finish strong.
He still surpassed 1,000 yards rushing last week and is one of the big reasons why the second-ranked Mountaineers (10-1, 5-1 Big East) are one win away from a trip to New Orleans for the BCS national championship game.
``It's easy to get fired up for this,'' said Slaton, who has averaged 200 yards on the ground and scored seven times against Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-4) in two blowout wins. ``It's a rivalry game and I know what it means to the coaches and fans.
``A lot of our fans are going to be here and a lot of their fans are going to want to get in. There are going to be some fans just around the stadium. It will be pretty loud.''
Several times there have been tremendous expectations at West Virginia, only to be followed by bitter disappointments.
The Mountaineers went 11-0 during the 1988 regular season and rose to No. 3 before losing to top-ranked Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Their last trip to New Orleans came after an unbeaten 1993 regular season, when they were embarrassed by Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
The Mountaineers had solid running games in those years, too.
West Virginia is averaging 310 yards per game on the ground this season, even without a significant contribution lately from Slaton. He started with four straight 100-yard efforts but has only two in his past seven starts.
Despite being healthy, Slaton has 44 fewer carries at the same point in the season and isn't even in the top 40 in the country in yards rushing. He has nine career games of more than 150 yards but none this season.
He'll have just the third-highest rushing total in the Backyard Bawl, behind Pitt freshman LeSean McCoy with 1,180 yards and White's 1,144 yards.
None of that fazes coach Rich Rodriguez, who believes Slaton is becoming a more complete player.
He's the team's second-leading receiver with 24 catches for 339 yards, and when he isn't carrying the ball he's a great decoy for White, who like Slaton a year ago has emerged as a Heisman candidate with a penchant for pummeling Pittsburgh on the ground.
Last week against Connecticut, Slaton delivered several crushing blocks that helped spring freshman Noel Devine for 118 yards.
``That just goes to show the unselfishness of a Steve Slaton,'' Rodriguez said. ``His blocks were huge.''
Even though defenses are jamming the trenches and challenging West Virginia's reshuffled offensive line, Slaton has still managed 5.2 yards per carry and 95 yards per game. His 17 touchdowns rushing matches his total from 2005 and surpasses last season by one.
He can add to his school-record 50 career touchdowns rushing against a Pittsburgh defense that has surrendered an average of 444 yards rushing and six TDs to the Mountaineers in the past two seasons.
Seemingly the perfect tonic for Slaton, even if he is more concerned about punching a ticket to New Orleans than the numbers.
``It's a dangerous game,'' Slaton said. ``But that's every week. Every team we've played so far has played us to win.''
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