The facts are clear:
WVU star tailback Steve Slaton, preseason Heisman hopeful, is having an off-year compared to last year, when he rushed for more yards and had a higher per-carry average.
The only question up for debate:
Some uncharitable columnists have blamed Slaton, writing even that the muscular, stiff-arming, sprinting tailback is a "shell of his former self."
Others, including Coach Rod, have said that "maybe it's because 10 guys are after him," meaning that defenses are keying on Slaton.
Others have noted that Slaton has been a hair's-breadth from breaking several long runs this season, missing only a crucial downfield block from a wide receiver—an integral part of WVU's running offense.
Some have noted that Slaton isn't getting as many carries has he did last year, though that would not address his diminished per-carry average.
I did a long comparative study of Slaton's stats from last year and this year, and concluded only that the embarrassment of riches that is WVU's offense has reduced his role and his production.
However, after carefully re-watching WVU's 38-31 Thursday night victory over Louisville, in which Slaton was held to 60 yards on 17 carries, I realized I had made a mistake by looking to Slaton to explain Slaton's drop-off.
Slaton's reduced production is clearly the fault of WVU's offensive line, whose penalties and lack of execution ruined Slaton's night and have been hampering him all season.
On Thursday, it was largely the fault of OL Ryan Stanchek and converted tight end OL Selvish Capers.
It's also the fault of Coach Rod, whose "spread" running attack has become a "bunched" running game.
Here is an analysis of Slaton's 11 first-half carries:
1. Six yards. Capers failed to hold his block, allowing tackler to get to Slaton. Had Capers held the block, there was an open lane.
2. 35 yards. Called back because of a Stanchek holding penalty.
3. Six yards. Stopped at the line because there was no hole, but broke a tackle to produce a run on his own.
4. 12 yards. Capers was downfield in front of Slaton trying to block the last defender between Slaton and end zone, but the defender ran around Capers to tackle Slaton.
5. Loss. Left side of line collapsed by Louisville defensive line.
6. Loss. Stanchek tries to block a linebacker but leaves defensive end unblocked, who tackles Slaton.
7. Loss. C Mike Dent is pushed five yards backward by a Louisville defensive lineman.
8. One-yard touchdown run. Follows block of FB Owen Schmitt.
9. Two yards. Capers turns his man directly into open running lane Slaton is taking; Slaton forced to turn back inside.
10. No gain. Entire offensive line pushed two yards backward; lineman being "blocked" by Stanchek breaks free, cutting off the outside and forcing Slaton back inside.
11. Loss. OL Greg Isdander pancaked by defensive lineman.
In short, Slaton didn't make a bad decision in the first half.
In the second half, Slaton did make a mistake—he fumbled after being hit on the ball. But the offensive lineman were worse.
There were more holding penalties, and Stanchek helped give Pat White a concussion by running into him. Slaton was also kept out of an entire series, once again limiting his carries.
And it's not like WVU has other running backs who are thriving.
So far this season, Slaton has 885 yards. After him come Noel Devine, with 367 yards; Owen Schmitt, with 172 yards; and Jock Sanders, with 48 yards.
Why, then, is White averaging 90 yards rushing per game, just behind Slaton?
Isn't the same offensive line blocking for him?
My theory here is that most of White's yards come on scrambles out of pass plays, rather than on designed runs.
That means he's truly running out of a spread set with lots of space around him—the defenders are dropped in pass coverage and the offensive linemen are spread out blocking the rushers, who are coming from all directions.
This is what the field looked like for Slaton's first two seasons. Now, though, other teams have learned how to defend the run out of the spread—and are no longer leaving the massive running lanes that once sprung Slaton on 60-yard breakaways.
We saw that on White's long touchdown run to start the Mississippi State game: Had he handed the ball to Slaton instead of keeping it, Slaton would have been tackled for a loss...because the entire defense flowed with him.
Simply put, Slaton has had nowhere to run, thanks to the ineffective play of his offensive line and Coach Rod's inability to adapt his spread running attack to defeat the evolving defenses thrown at it.
Neither of those thing are Slaton's fault—but he's far too good a teammate to say so.