Friday, October 26, 2007

West Virginia-Rutgers has top Big East backs Slaton, Rice

AP Sports Writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - If Greg Schiano had been a flashier salesman, Steve Slaton might have been Ray Rice's teammate.

While the Rutgers coach was trying to woo Slaton out of a high school 35 miles away in Levittown, Pa., along came West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez to snatch Slaton away.

``We recruited Steve Slaton. Obviously, it was not well enough,'' Schiano said. ``I did such a great job of swaying him that he went right down to West Virginia and committed.''

Slaton and Rice blossomed on their own instead of fighting for carries on the same team. The yardage could be piling up for the juniors on Saturday when No. 6 West Virginia (6-1, 1-1 Big East) visits No. 25 Rutgers (5-2, 2-1).

Slaton, who got his first-ever start against Rutgers two years ago, will be going for his third straight 100-yard game against the Scarlet Knights. Rice already is Rutgers' career rushing leader and is looking to become the first player in school history to post three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

The pair have drawn comparisons because of their gaudy stats and debate over who's the best back in the Big East.

In West Virginia's run-oriented spread formation, Slaton has the quickness to get around defenders on the outside and often scores untouched.

Rice is a true workhorse and has speed, too, in Rutgers' balanced I-formation. He's best known for overpowering defenders.

``He is a big, strong thick kid who is low to the ground. He is hard to get a hold of,'' said West Virginia lineman Keilen Dykes. ``When you do get a hold of him, you have to bring everything with you. If you don't, he will break through arm tackles. You have to hit him with everything you got. It's not just grab a jersey.

``It will be up to us to have as many guys as possible to the ball and slow him down. It's the Ray Rice show.''

Rice was third in the nation in rushing last season and set a Big East record with 1,794 yards, 50 yards more than Slaton. Slaton finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting while Rice was seventh.

Neither are at the forefront of such talk this season due to slips in production.

It doesn't diminish the respect factor.

For a few hours last week, Slaton was a Rutgers fan, rooting for the Scarlet Knights to beat then-first-place South Florida.

Rice, who led the nation in carries last year, had an eye-popping 39 carries for 181 yards in the 30-27 win. His most memorable play may have been stiff-arming standout defensive end George Selvie into the turf.

``If you didn't have to play against (Rice), he'd be fun to watch,'' Rodriguez said. ``The thing that isn't talked about is his balance. I think that's one of the best attributes as a back or as a skilled player is great balance (and) not getting knocked off your feet.''

Rice has 999 yards entering Saturday's game and ranks fourth in the nation at 143 yards per game.

Schiano said Rice's production compared to last year ``doesn't really matter to me, but I think he's running harder now than he has at any other point in the season. So to me that's a positive.''

Rutgers lost back-to-back games to Maryland and Cincinnati when Rice was held under 100 yards. West Virginia has the nation's second-best rushing attack, so if Slaton is slowed down, there's always quarterback Pat White, fullback Owen Schmitt and emerging backups Noel Devine and Jock Sanders.

Slaton has 300 fewer rushing yards than at this point last season, although he's the second-leading receiver with 16 catches for 215 yards.

``I am trying to be more of a threat blocking and catching the ball. I don't want to be limited to just one thing,'' Slaton said.