No. 5 Louisville 44, No. 3 West Virginia 34

Thursday, November 2nd 2006, 10:56 pm

By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Welcome to the national championship hunt, Louisville.

Brian Brohm threw for 354 yards and a touchdown, and the fifth-ranked Cardinals took advantage of key mistakes by No. 3 West Virginia for an impressive 44-34 victory Thursday night that could give them an inside track to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The win will likely lift Louisville (8-0, 3-0 Big East) to at least fourth in next week's BCS poll _ it was fifth this week _ and could be the springboard the Cardinals need to propel them into the national championship game if they manage to run the table.

But first, they must get past another undefeated conference foe. Louisville plays at No. 15 Rutgers (8-0, 3-0) next Thursday night.

``Now the biggest game in Louisville history is this Rutgers game coming up,'' Brohm said.

The Cardinals avenged last year's triple-overtime loss to West Virginia (7-1, 2-1) by returning a fumble and a punt for touchdowns during a pivotal three-minute stretch in the third quarter. Then, they delivered on their offseason motto to ``finish.''

West Virginia quarterback Pat White ran for 125 yards and four touchdowns and added 222 yards through the air. But he couldn't overcome three WVU turnovers and a relentless Louisville offense that racked up 468 total yards and kept the Mountaineers on their heels all night.

Heisman Trophy hopeful Steve Slaton ran for 156 yards and a touchdown for West Virginia, but fumbled on consecutive snaps in the third quarter _ apparently bothered by weakness in his left arm. Louisville's Malik Jackson returned the second one 13 yards for a score that gave the Cardinals a 23-14 lead, and Trent Guy added a 40-yard punt return four plays later, pushing Louisville's advantage to 30-16 with 9:23 left in the third.

And unlike last season _ when the Mountaineers rallied from 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to stun the Cardinals 46-44 _ there would be no miracle comeback this year.

Though White led the Mountaineers on a pair of touchdown drives to get them back in it, the Cardinals responded each time with a score of their own. Brohm connected with Mario Urrutia on a 6-yard TD pass and Anthony Allen added a 5-yard touchdown run to keep the Cardinals safely in front.

Set back by their own mistakes, the Mountaineers simply couldn't keep pace as their school-record 14-game winning streak ended while a packed Papa John's Stadium crowd _ clad mostly in black T-shirts that read ``Beat WVU'' _ stormed the field.

Urrutia finished with six catches for 113 yards and Harry Douglas caught six passes for 116 yards as Louisville seemingly did whatever it wanted on offense.

The Cardinals punted just twice and scored on all but three of their possessions as they extended their home winning streak to 16 straight and beat West Virginia for the first time since 1990.

West Virginia finished with 540 yards of total offense but put the ball on the ground six times, committed seven penalties and appeared a step behind the Cardinals most of the night.

Neither team looked comfortable playing on a national stage early on. The Cardinals dropped passes, tripped over their own feet in the open field and settled for field goals deep in West Virginia territory. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, couldn't hold onto the ball.

Still, Louisville managed a 16-14 lead at halftime behind Art Carmody's three field goals and a 10-yard touchdown run by Allen as the Cardinals controlled the clock and did a good job of keeping Slaton and White off the field.

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