I re-watched the WVU-UConn game last night for the first time since seeing it live, and the television broadcast revealed some interesting things about WVU's two star running backs, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine.
By now, most people are aware that Slaton has had a sub-par year, rushing for about 600 fewer yards than last season. He has virtually disappeared in the past few games, and his conspicuous absence has led many to wonder if something is wrong.
Devine had breakout games against Maryland and UConn—but just like everyone else, got stuffed by Pitt.
Based on the season so far and what I saw against UConn, I believe Coach Rod will start Devine in the backfield—not along with Slaton, as he did in the UConn game—but instead of him. I envision a starting backfield of Pat White, Owen Schmitt, and Devine. Slaton may start as a slot receiver, but he may not.
I don't say this because I think Devine is better than Slaton; I do not. Rather, I think this will be the case because Devine is likely to be harmed by the deficiencies of this year's iteration of the offensive line—which, comparable numbers notwithstanding, is clearly inferior to last year's.
As I've written before, the performance of the offensive line and Coach Rod's playcalling are to blame for Slaton's falloff this year.
My case was backed up by Slaton's 31-yard touchdown run against UConn.
Viewed on TV, it looked exactly like all of his long runs from 2006: The offensive line flowed to one side, backside lineman bypassing their men to get to second-level blockers. And there was a sustained downfield block by a wide receiver.
Slaton, for his part, ran parallel to the line, as he is supposed to do, and flowed effortlessly into the lane as he has so many times in the past, accelerating past downfield tacklers and into the end zone.
This is how Slaton runs when the line and receivers are doing what they're supposed to be doing, especially against an overmatched opponent. Slaton did not look a "step slow"—he looked exactly like Steve Slaton.
At the same time, when his lanes didn't open, or closed quickly, he was bottled up or held to short gains. Slaton has never been a cut-back runner. He is a speed-back; give him a lane and he's gone.
Devine, on the other hand, can change directions more quickly than Slaton, and is able to go from handoff to sideline faster. Why? His first gear is quicker than Slaton's.
Because of Devine's smaller size, he can squirt through holes better than Slaton. He is lower to the ground than Slaton and harder to bring down. And you don't lose much speed, if any, when you sub Devine for Slaton.
I expect WVU's offensive line to get better in the offseason, and I have a hunch that the Slaton of 2006 will return next year—even if he is reduced to a Schmitt-like role as Devine's blocking back.
But it is unlikely WVU's offensive line will get measurably better between now and the Fiesta Bowl.
If Coach Rod expects Slaton to be able to rack up big yards behind this line against the Sooner defense, he will be disappointed.
The Mountaineers' best chance for a jump-start is to lean on Devine.