When we last saw them they were physical wrecks. West Virginia University running back Steve Slaton had a deep thigh bruise and a broken bone in his hand that had turned his bowl experience into a Later Gator Bowl.

With entire offensive load shifted to his shoulders, quarterback Pat White could barely walk or breath, his toes and ribs sending pulsating messages of pain to his brain.

The only thing that wasn’t bruised on either of their bodies was their egos, which allowed them to celebrate a second straight New Year’s Day bowl victory, this time over Georgia Tech in Jacksonville by the same 38-35 score they had dumped Georgia in the Sugar Bowl the year before.

An 11-2 season had followed a 12-1 season, and the college football world was beginning to wonder what would come next for this amazing pair of athletes who had merged speed and spirit into what was nothing short of the Golden Age of West Virginia football.

Today they return from an offseason of rest and rehabilitation. A surgeon mended Slaton’s hand; time took care of White’s wounds.

In just hours, they will find themselves standing in the tunnel that leads into Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, rushing with their teammates through an oversized helmet filled with a smoky haze to begin a journey into the unknown.

They are juniors both — Slaton and White — each being given a shot at winning the Heisman Trophy, each believing it far more important that they somehow combine their myriad of skills to earn not such an individual award, but to win West Virginia’s first national football championship.

Considering that they have done nearly everything that any collegiate athlete could dream of, White being named the Big East’s Most Valuable Offensive Player and Slaton earning All-America honors, it is difficult to imagine that they are still improving with each practice.

As Western Michigan of the Mid-America Conference comes to town with upset hopes built on a history of MAC upsets over the years and buoyed by mid-major Boise State’s impossible upset of Oklahoma last year in the Fiesta Bowl, Slaton and White talk of raising their games even higher.

Consider this list of game-week questions and answers.

Q: Steve, you rushed for 1,744 yards last year. Is 2,000 out of the question?

A: “I don’t think anything is out of the question. If I get a good start, any goal can be reached.”

Think about that for a minute. Defenses are devoting themselves to stop WVU’s devastating running game, putting everyone but the team trainer in the box, and Slaton honestly believes he can reach 2,000 yards.

Then there was this question put to White, who a year ago ran for 1,219 yards and threw for 1,655 more.

Q: Could this team average 40 points a game?

A: “With the weapons we have on offense, yeah. The sky’s the limit.”

Ah, the optimism of opening day. No wins, no losses, no limitations.

Just hopes.

A year ago those hopes weren’t met. As good as that 11-2 season was, there was a loss at Louisville and an inexplicable home defeat to South Florida.

But, just as no one can name who won the 100-Year War — it actually lasted 116 years — no one really remembers what transpired last season. It is erased from the mind by the aroma of an anticipated national championship season in 2007, one that is engineered by Slaton and White.

It won’t be easy. Winning 12 or 13 games without a blemish never is, especially when you must play at Maryland, at South Florida, at Rutgers, and face Louisville at home.

All that, just to get to a championship game, the football gods and the BCS computers willing.

It takes a few lucky bounces. It takes avoiding injuries. It takes — yes — talent, too.

Somehow, though, talent ranks first and last on the list of must haves, for you can’t possibly do it without talent, but you can’t do it with just talent alone.

That is why this year’s team may really have everything it takes. It is older, wiser.

Ask Slaton to compare himself to the running back who burst onto the national scene in the fifth game of his freshman year when he scored six touchdowns in one of the greatest comeback victories in WVU history, beating Louisville in triple overtime.

“I was just doing it on talent as a freshman,” he said. “Now I know what I’m doing.”

And, in an odd way, he may prove himself to be more productive by being used less. With the addition of freshmen sensations Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, coach Rich Rodriguez says he is going to be able to rest Slaton more often.

That, of course, is something he has said every year since he’s been here, only to have Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson and Slaton carry time after time after time.

“Do I want to rest? No,” said Slaton. “But this year coach has been preaching having fresh guys in there. I think not resting last year took its toll toward the end of the season.”

And if he’s fresh, Slaton says that his yardage could skyrocket.

“I averaged 7.0 yards a carry last year. Getting that higher would definitely be a goal.”

Higher than 7.0?

“Hopefully 10 yards this year,” he said, grinning at the absurdity of the thought.

And if Slaton is running that well, and White comes anywhere near his 7.4 yards a carry, rest assured of one thing.

The passing game will open up completely and White will be looking at open receivers like Darius Reynaud, Owen Schmitt, Nate Sowers and Dorrell Jalloh, to say nothing of Slaton, who will be used in the slot in various formations.

All of this is not only possible, but probable — at least on opening day of a football season that could become one for the books.

The record books.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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