ATLANTA - Enough with those jokes about the Big East. West Virginia clearly deserved its place in the Bowl Championship Series.
Steve Slaton rushed for a record 204 yards and three touchdowns to lead the No. 11 Mountaineers to a 38-35 victory over eighth-ranked Georgia, which couldn't take advantage of the home-field edge Monday night in the first Sugar Bowl played outside of New Orleans.
West Virginia (11-1) stunned all those red-clad fans at the Georgia Dome by jumping to a 28-0 lead by the opening minute of the second quarter. The Bulldogs (10-3) rallied, twice closing within a field goal in the second half, but they couldn't finish one of the greatest comebacks in bowl history.
"I think we took to heart some of the criticism of our league and the fact that no one was predicting us to win," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Basically, we were playing in their home environment, their home state."
Give most of the credit to Slaton, who wasn't even the Mountaineers' best freshman runner in fall camp and didn't crack the starting lineup until the sixth game of the season. Georgia certainly had no answer for the speedy back, who squirted through big holes and left defenders such as All-American safety Greg Blue in the dust on a pair of 52-yard touchdown runs.
Slaton eclipsed the previous Sugar Bowl rushing record, a 202-yard performance by Pitt's Tony Dorsett in a national championship-clinching victory over Georgia in 1977.
"It was just our speed," Slaton said. "They couldn't match up with us."
The Mountaineers saved their biggest surprise for the end. Georgia was poised to get the ball back when West Virginia dropped back to punt on fourth-and-6 at the Bulldogs 48. Phil Brady hauled in the long snap but took off running, gaining 10 yards on the fake and a game-clinching first down.
"We were definitely playing for a return," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We didn't think they would do that. Give them a lot of credit. It takes a lot of nerve to do that."
The last of Slaton's touchdowns gave the Mountaineers a seemingly comfortable 38-28 lead with 8½ minutes to go. D.J. Shockley brought Georgia back with his third touchdown pass, a 34-yarder to Bryan McClendon with 5:33 left, but never got his hands on the ball again.
The teams combined for 1,003 yards, much of it coming in a wild first half that ended with the Mountaineers holding a 31-21 lead.
"West Virginia did a heck of a job jumping on us," Richt said. "The only consolation is we didn't lay down and die."
The 72nd Sugar Bowl was shifted to Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, flooding the Big Easy and leaving the Superdome in no shape to host a Pop Warner game, much less a major bowl.
While poignant, the Sugar was the least heralded of the BCS bowls, a distant fourth to the Fiesta matchup between Notre Dame and Ohio State, the Joe Paterno-vs.-Bobby Bowden showdown at the Orange and, of course, the national championship game between No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 2 Texas at the Rose Bowl.
But the Fiesta - a 34-20 romp for Ohio State - didn't come close on the excitement meter. And both the Orange and Rose will be hard-pressed to produce a game this thrilling.
West Virginia also did its part to stymie criticism of the Big East. OK, so the league isn't as strong since Miami and Virginia Tech bolted to the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the Mountaineers proved they're one of the best teams in the country.
They certainly came out with a chip on their shoulder, facing the champion of the powerful Southeastern Conference just 75 miles from its Athens campus.
West Virginia, which had lost 11 of its last 12 bowl games, was up 28-0 by the opening minute of the second quarter, with Slaton and Darius Reynaud scoring two touchdowns apiece.
Slaton showed his speed on the first of his 52-yard runs, which capped West Virginia's opening possession. His other first-half score came on an 18-yard burst through a tiny hole, the freshman prancing across the goal line in front of Blue.
Reynaud caught a 3-yard pass from Pat White, then caught the Bulldogs off guard on a 13-yard reverse that left all but a couple of defenders running the wrong way.
But Georgia didn't fold.
Kregg Lumpkin got the Bulldogs on the scoreboard with a 34-yard touchdown run, sparking a little life in the mostly Georgia crowd. They were roaring by the time the teams trotted to the locker room, having cut the deficit to a more manageable 10 points.
Thomas Brown had a 52-yard touchdown run for the Bulldogs, getting loose after appearing stuffed at the line by the Mountaineers.
West Virginia kept the big plays rolling when fullback Owen Schmitt, a transfer from Division III Wisconsin-River Falls, rumbled for 54 yards on a third-and-1 play. But the Georgia defense finally arrived, stuffing Slaton for a 3-yard loss on another short-yardage play at the 7 and forcing the Mountaineers to settle for Pat McAfee's 27-yard field goal.
Georgia reclaimed the momentum before halftime with an 11-play, 80-yard drive. The Bulldogs converted on fourth-and-1 at their own 42, then Shockley bailed them out on third-and-10 by scrambling away from pressure and delivering a 32-yard pass to Mario Raley.
Shockley followed with a 15-yard run, then connected with Leonard Pope on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 58 seconds left in the wild half.
With 62 points by halftime, the teams set both Sugar Bowl and BCS records for one half. Running up and down the field with little resistance, Georgia piled up 311 yards and West Virginia had 200 of its 294 yards on the ground.
The only thing separating the teams was turnovers. Shockley and Danny Ware both fumbled the ball away, and the Mountaineers capitalized each time with TDs.
Late in the third quarter, Shockley tossed a 34-yard touchdown to A.J. Bryant, pulling the Bulldogs to 31-28. They never got any closer.
Shockley completed 20-of-33 passes for 277 yards and also rushed for 71 yards on eight carries.
But it wasn't enough against West Virginia, which ripped through the Bulldogs for 382 yards rushing. Schmitt had 82 yards on the ground and White rushed for 77.