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The Mysterious Fall of Steve Slaton

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All things must pass.
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When Rich Rodriguez spurned Alabama in December `06, the rationale seemed clear enough to me: in Pat White and Steve Slaton, Rod had a couple legitimate stars, the dream tandem for his very specialized offensive system, and two years against relatively friendly schedules to ride them to a mythical championship bid. It's one of those rare matches made in heaven, and an opportunity - especially at a place like West Virginia, with no history of sustained, elite success to draw on when the meal tickets graduate - that only comes by once, maybe twice in a career. Bigger schools could throw more money around, but they couldn't offer a better immediate situation than existed for Rodriguez at WVU.

I don't know if his subsequent jump to Michigan is proof that I was wrong about that assessment, or that the equation changed somewhere between Rodriguez's growing disappointment with administration and the Mountaineers' devastating loss to Pitt. But he obviously saw the situation differently last December than he had a year before. And with the grand puppetmaster gone, according to an SI "Truth and Rumors" item picked up from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Slaton too was looking at his future at WVU in a less rosy light, skeptical scouts be damned:

Most observers thought he would need to return to school for his senior season to re-establish himself as an elite running back. Slaton was leaning toward coming back until mid-December, when Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia to coach at Michigan, taking with him a number of his assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, who also worked with running backs. In Slaton's eyes, that meant he would have to start over with new coaches, and he just wasn't interested in that.
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He wasn't interested in that, nor, if the trend at the end of last season is any indication, was Slaton interested in the possibility of finishing his career as a role player. Partly because of nagging injuries and partly because of the steady emergence of Noel Devine, Slaton's role in the offense in `07 did not approach his first two seasons:

You have not only a tremendous drop in Slaton's contribution to the Mountaineer machine as a junior compared to blockbuster efforts his first two years, but also, as you focus in on last year specifically, a significant decline at the end of the season. Slaton topped 100 yards only once in the last six games, and after averaging seven per carry in 2006 failed to crack five per carry in all but two of the last nine:

The only disappointing aspect of the Fiesta Bowl romp over Oklahoma, from a purely self-interested position, was Slaton's total absence: he had two carries before leaving the game, for zero yards. When either he or White had been forced to leave the game with an injury before, it almost always meant disaster - Slaton missed the second half of the loss to Louisville in 2006; White missed the second half in the loss to South Florida last year and most of the second half in the loss to Pittsburgh. In two-and-a-half years, aside from the home loss to USF in 2006, the Mountaineers had not lost with both players healthy. But they had won just twice (in an overtime game against Rutgers to close 2006, where White didn't play, and in the Gator Bowl a month later, to which Slaton contributed just 31 total yards in a limited role against Georgia Tech) when either was hurt. Whichever star happened to shine brightest week to week, it was always White and Slaton drawing touches and attention together.

The Fiesta Bowl closed the door on that sense of equal partnership, a door that first began to close in the loss at South Florida in September. White left that game in the third quarter, and instead of relying on Slaton, the Mountaineers suddenly went pass happy with backup quarterback Jarrett Brown; Slaton played the entire game but had a measly two carries after White's departure, while Brown committed three turnovers. That wasthe first of a five-game stretch in which Slaton topped 100 yards only once and was outrushed by White in every game, and after ending that streak by going for 103 against Cincinnati (White had 155), Slaton was a forgotten man in the final three. The Mountaineers exploded for 517 yards rushing alone in a 45-point rout over UConn two days after Thanksgiving, but only 54 came from Slaton, on just ten carries, his worst full-game contribution since he entered the lineup in 2005; White, on the other hand, ran for 186, and Devine had 118 on the first double digit-carry day of his career. With big runs by Brown and receiver Jock Sanders in mop-up duty, Slaton's contribution to the best single-game output of the Rodriguez era was only the fifth-best on the team.

The crushing loss to Pitt the following week was the same sort of insult to Slaton's role as the USF game: with White on the sideline for much of the most critical situation of the year, Slaton had just nine carries for eleven yards, the same lame total as Devine, and ceded the role of central playmaker to Brown. But of course, it's not failure that makes Slaton look so expendable now - it was success. Specifically, it was the unquestioned brilliance of the offense without him in the Fiesta Bowl, against a top 20 national defense just weeks removed from holding another prolific spread attack (Missouri's) to its worst output of the season. White made the offense his own against Oklahoma, throwing two touchdowns in addition to his 150 yards on the ground while previously within-the-offense types hit the Sooners for big plays from every position. The second half played like Noel Devine's official coming out party, notice that, Slaton or no Slaton, the future of undersized spark plugs at West Virginia's backfield was smaller, faster, younger and not looking on with a bum ankle:

White and Devine and their big game heroics are the reasons Rodriguez's exit has been met with over-the-top angst (it was his offense, after all, and his coordinator calling the shots in the Fiesta Bowl) while Slaton's has received a relative shrug. The talent clearly still exists for the offense to go at full speed; if it doesn't, the failure to send White out on top will fall at the feet of the new coaching staff, which is raising skeptical eyebrows before its first spring practice. Either way, for Slaton, the grass on a senior season could not be as green as it looked in mid-November.