Where's Steve Slaton? West Virginia Spreads the Wealth

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IOctober 10, 2007

IconThere’s an impression among some WVU fans—myself included—that All-American running back Steve Slaton isn't playing up to par this season.

Slaton has been held under 100 yards rushing in his past two game—the first time he's been so limited as a starter.

He had a 200-yard game to open last season; he has yet to repeat the feat this year.

His top rushing day in 2007 is 146 yards. In the Mountaineers’ loss to South Florida, Slaton was a non-factor.

As it stands, Slaton has fallen out of the Heisman Trophy talk, and has failed to produce the sort of jaw-dropping runs that once dominated ESPN highlights.

Bob Hertzel of the Fairmont (W.Va.) Times-West Virginian notes today that during Slaton's first two seasons, he had 13 runs of 40 yards or more.

So far this season, he's managed only two.

Here are the objective numbers, courtesy of Mark DeVault’s WVUStats.com:

- Through the first six games in 2006, Slaton had 128 carries for 979 yards, a 7.7 yards-per-carry average. His longest run was 52 yards and he had 8 touchdowns.

- Through the first six games of 2007, Slaton has 112 carries for 625 yards, a 5.6 yards-per-carry average. His longest run so far is 58 yards and he has 9 touchdowns.

So far, he is 354 yards behind last season.

- For all of 2006 (13 games), Slaton had 248 carries for 1,744 yards, a 7 YPC average, with a long run of 65 yards and 16 touchdowns.

- Slaton’s rushing numbers for this season project out to 247 carries for 1,352 yards and 20 touchdowns. At that rate, he would finish 392 yards behind last season.

As far as receiving numbers: Through six games this season, Slaton has 12 catches for 179 yards and 1 touchdown, with a long reception of 50 yards.

If you double those numbers, you come pretty close to his 2006 numbers of 27 catches for 360 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Now, let’s look at the Breakaway Factor:

Slaton’s longest runs in the first six games of 2006: 16, 49, 52, 16, 27, and 52 yards, for an average Breakaway Run of 35 yards.

His longest runs in each game of 2007: 58, 18, 22, 41, 14, and 18 yards, for an average Breakaway Run of 29 yards.

Digging deeper:

- The only significant statistical difference between this season and last is yards-per-carry. Slaton’s average is down more than 2 YPC.

Why is that? Could it be the rookie offensive line? One way to test that theory is to look at the YPC averages of other runners this season and last.

During the first six games of 2006, QB Pat White averaged 9 yards per carry. During the first six games of this season, White is averaging 6 yards per carry.

FB Owen Schmitt’s numbers through six games in 2006: 4.8 yards per carry.

This season: 5.8 yards per carry.

I'm not sure what to make of this. White's 2006 totals were inflated by his 247-yard day against Syracuse. To compensate, I looked at WVU's team per-carry average for 2006 and through the first six games of 2007.

Last season, WVU averaged 6.7 yards every time someone was handed the ball. This season, that number is down to 6.2 yards.

So there has been a drop-off, but not a shocking one.

WVU is actually averaging more yards per game rushing this season (311) than last (303).

So it's clearly a Slaton-centric issue.

What gives? Some possible conclusions:

- Defenses are keying on the All-American RB, assigning a spy and clogging running lanes.

- Coach Rich Rodriguez probably hasn't helped himself by teaching every college coach in America the spread-option at his coaching camps—and by picking up the phone every time Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel call.

Because the system has become so common, teams are figuring out how to defend it.

- Slaton put on 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He looks different—less like a thin kid and more like a man. He's running tougher this year, with a preference for the stiff-arm over the spin move.

I haven’t seen Slaton’s 40-yard time this season compared to last, but physics insists that adding five percent more body mass decreases velocity and acceleration—unless the corresponding new muscle compensates for the extra mass.

- An embarrassment of offensive riches this season (Noel Devine, Darius Reynaud, Jock Sanders, etc.) has reduced the number of touches Slaton has gotten.

- Slaton has been injury-free, but has had trouble with leg cramps—which kept him out of portions of the South Florida loss.

- He's getting two fewer touches per game.

In the first six games of 2006, Slaton averaged 23 touches (rushing plus receiving). In the first six games of this season, he's averaging 21.

- The downfield blocking from the receivers isn't as good this season as last season, as Coach Rod recently noted. Receivers play a vital role in springing long runs.

My final take:

WVU lost two games last season with Slaton making eye-popping runs. This season, with Slaton's diminished numbers, WVU has only one loss.

It says something about the WVU offense that it can score 55 points without having a 100-yard rusher or a 150-yard passer, as it did last week against Syracuse.

That's pretty stunning.

The bottom line is that Slaton, for all his great ability, is now simply one cog in an increasingly multipart machine. It's a problem I bet Arkansas (Darren McFadden), Louisville (Brian Brohm), Kentucky (Andre Woodson), Michigan (Mike Hart), and Hawaii (Colt Brennan) all wish they had.