Few took notice of it in the warm glow that came out of Steve Slaton’s consensus All-American season of 2006, but it should have offered more than a little bit of insight into the inner workings of the West Virginia football team that it was quarterback Patrick White, not Slaton, who was named the Big East’s offensive player of the year.

Slaton certainly had a season to remember, 1,744 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 27 catches for 360 more yards and a pair of TDs, yet the coaches who voted upon the MVP award realized that everything WVU does offensively starts with White.

So strong was his candidacy for this honor that even missing the Rutgers’ game with injury — one of the season’s most important games — did not detract from luster.

It had become readily apparent that as White goes, so goes West Virginia. His speed and cunning are the perfect complement to Slaton, and his passing is dangerous enough that no defense dare ignore it.

Then, along came a September Thursday evening in College Park, Md., a nationally televised spectacular between fierce rivals in a game that carried strong poll and BCS implications.

It was the kind of game when Patrick White lifts his game to another level.

If WVU would win, the conventional thinking went, Patrick White would have to play one of his better games.

He didn’t.

Oh, there were moments — Patrick White moments — to be sure.

The first time he touched the football, less than a minute into the game, he broke a 22-yard touchdown run, set off by a nifty cutback that allowed him to streak untouched to the end zone.

But who could have guessed that the Big East’s all-time leading rushing quarterback would not add a yard to that total, finishing with 22 net yard and passing for just 96.

The tipoff was the usually immaculate White fumbled the football three times, inexplicably twice on shotgun snaps.

“Patrick wasn’t as sharp as normal,” coach Rich Rodriguez allowed in the immediate aftermath.

A few days passed. Rodriguez had time to think about what had happened in Maryland, to analyze it and to find out if the happenings were a sign of something physically wrong with White or mark it off to just a bad night at ball yard.

By Tuesday he did not seem too concerned.

“I think he was pressing a little, trying to do too much,” Rodriguez said. “It was a big game, on national television. Sometimes people go outside the framework of the offense (in situations like that). I tried to calm him down, tell him he didn’t need to press the issue.”

It sounds like a legitimate explanation, yet one that leaves a hunger for something more to the point.

Indeed, Patrick White had played in big games, nationally televised games before and had been better than good. He had shrugged off injury to lead the Mountaineers to a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia and done the same a year later against Georgia Tech when Slaton’s injured hand and leg limited his abilities.

What’s more, White had always maintained that he was the same in big games as in small games, that each game was what it was and that he approached each the same. If there was any psychological profile of Pat White it was the unflappable leader.

Yet for whatever reason, his coach thought he was pressing, on edge, and that it cost him concentration and penetration into the defense’s secondary.

To White’s credit, he didn’t stutter step around a question about his performance on Thursday night. He is so level-headed, so down-to-earth that he didn’t take the question as an insult, as so many egomaniacal athletes tend to it.

It was business as usual.

“Mental mistakes,” he said, almost with a shrug.

When those fumbles were put before as, perhaps, a sign of a lack of focus, White denied that was the case.

“I was focused. I just had a bad game. But we have other athletes on this team that got the job done. So we got the ‘W,’” he said.

And, in the end, to Patrick White that is all that matters. West Virginia beat Maryland quite handily, 31-14, and as it moves on against East Carolina the events of that evening are put back into the archives of the mind.

A short memory is a benefit to any athlete, for no athlete is able to bring his “A game” out every night.

White will not allow whatever problems he had at Maryland to fester inside him, to eat away at his confidence or detract from his preparation. He understand that East Carolina is a team on the rise, a team that allowed K.J. Harris to gain 327 rushing yards against them in the 2004 opener yet has held WVU to fewer than 300 total yards in the past two games with Patrick White and Steve Slaton playing.

Rodriguez knows that he need not worry about White’s ability to return to the heights he has established as his own, and White is aware and appreciative of that.

“If he didn’t, he’d need another quarterback behind center,” White said.

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

Recommended for you