MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) – Tucked in the hills of West Virginia lies the Land of the Misfits.

It’s where unwanted and overlooked football players find opportunity, where they always play as if it were the last two minutes of the half, and where birthday cakes are handed out after practice.

These Mountaineers, with an undersized running back, under-appreciated quarterback and unconventional offense, have a 14-game winning streak, the best running game in the country and a place among college football’s elite entering one of the biggest games of the season.

No. 3 West Virginia plays at Big East rival and No. 5 Louisville on Thursday night, a matchup with national championship ramifications.

It’s the latest step in the journey for lead misfit and Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez, who couldn’t help but notice the similarities in his team and the characters in the Christmas cartoon “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” who end up on The Island of Misfit Toys.

“Remember how Herbie (actually, his name was Hermey) could only be a dentist in the Land of the Misfits?” Rodriguez explained recently. “Well, maybe this is the only place in Division I where I could be a head coach. Maybe it’s the only place where Pat White could play quarterback. Maybe it’s the only place where Steve Slaton could be a running back?”

Rodriguez returned to his homestate six years ago to replace Don Nehlen, who retired after 21 seasons at West Virginia. Born in Grant Town, W.Va., population about 400 and a 30-minute drive from Morgantown, Rodriguez knew the obstacles he’d face at West Virginia: “Location and population,” he said.

There’s just not a lot of Division I-A prospects around Morgantown.

Rodriguez and his staff scour the country for players, then have to sell them on living in a place some can’t find on a map.

West Virginia doesn’t get many blue chippers.

“We’re a blue-collar team,” said center Dan Mozes, whose only other scholarship offer came from Wake Forest. “We have nothing given to us. We work hard for everything we get. We’re not five-star recruits. We’re three to two stars – or no stars.”

White and Slaton epitomize the West Virginia way.

White, from Daphne, Ala., wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, in part because many schools figured he’d play pro baseball. He was drafted by the Angels. LSU gave him a look, but wanted him to play defensive back. Rodriguez was the only one who gave him a shot to play quarterback, so it was off to West Virginia for White.

It took some explaining to his friends back home.

“A lot of people don’t know that West Virginia even exists,” White said. “I had that last year, ‘Are you backing up Marcus Vick? Are you going to Virginia Tech?’ Or, ‘When you going back to Virginia.”

Slaton, from Levittown, Pa., and listed generously at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, also didn’t get much attention out of high school. Maryland offered him a scholarship, then pulled the offer and West Virginia scooped him up.

Going into the 2004 season, White was a redshirt freshman sharing the quarterback job, and Slaton was a freshman who wasn’t playing at all. By the time the season was over, they were the focal points of the offense. White ran for 952 yards and passed for 828 more. Slaton ran for 1,128 yards and 17 touchdowns.

“Definitely, I think I surprised myself,” Slaton said. “I had the talent to do good things, but the way things are going it’s still like a dream. I just came into the right program at the right time.”

So did White. Rodriguez called it the “perfect storm.”

That storm rained down on Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last season. West Virginia’s 38-35 win, with Slaton running for 204 yards and White getting 197 total yards, validated the Mountaineers’ success.

West Virginia (7-0) hasn’t slowed down since, averaging 319 yards rushing and 41 points per game this season with its no-huddle, spread-option attack.

“My favorite thing about the offense is the fast pace,” White said.

The Mountaineers practice like they play.

“If they changed the 25-second (play) clock to 10 seconds, that would be fine,” Rodriguez said.

Their practices are also loud. The pop of pads echoes throughout the empty stands at Milan Puskar Stadium. Coaches bark at players. Players yap at each other. White loudly chants “Let’s Goooo Mountaineers.” There’s even a few chuckles sprinkled in, but never do the Mountaineers slow down.

“We’re going to be loud, demanding, intense, but I also want to laugh, too,” Rodriguez said.

When the work is done – and the Mountaineers probably get more done in an hour than most teams do in two – Rodriguez gathers his team around for a speech. With the Louisville game just days away, he keeps it short.

“We got another four days of work,” he said. “But in four days, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Then it’s time to honor the day’s birthday boys with a rousing Happy Birthday from the team and a small cake.

It’s a tradition that Rodriguez started when he was head coach for seven years at NAIA Glenville State in West Virginia before he went to work with Tommy Bowden at Tulane, then Clemson.

“I always used to say if I ever get a Division I job, I want to take a small college approach,” he said. “Don’t get hung up on the enormity of the importance of it all.”

For the Mountaineers to compete with the Goliaths of college football – Ohio State, Michigan, Florida and Texas – they too must be true to their roots.

“I hope our guys feel every day they have something to prove,” Rodriguez said. “If they don’t have something to prove, they don’t belong here.”

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