Instead of, at the very least, bettering field position and, most likely, scoring (UL could stop WVU anymore than vice versa), the Mountaineers now trailed by two possessions. When they allowed, after a drive that netted minus-six yards, a 40-yard punt return, the game was essentially over at 30-14. That marked two consecutive Cards' touchdowns without an offensive possession (UL had the ball just 3:40 in the third quarter and 27 minutes overall, an average of nearly a point every 30 seconds).
More demoralizing was when it was revealed that Slaton knew he had a weak forearm and could not feel the ball or get a solid grip on it and, instead of telling the coaching staff as soon as it happened, he instead chose to "tough it out," according to head coach Rich Rodriguez. "And Steve is not a fumbler. He just tried to play with it. More upsetting than him fumbling is that he did not tell us. He is not a fumbler."
All true. Slaton is usually very dependable. He ran for156 yards and one touchdown and, per his usual performance, made defenders look silly with a combination of speed and skill. But a man's got to know his limitations, and playing through a debilitating injury like he did is a very poor move for the team. The fumble put Louisville ahead by two possessions, and West Virginia could never recover enough to seriously threaten. A major part of that goes to the Cards, some of it goes to the defense and the secondary, and some goes to simple lack of execution. But part of it goes to that decision, which, while certainly not being the be-all end-all of the game, was indeed its key moment.
We are a young football team," Rodriguez said. "Stevie is just a true sophomore. We're going to make mistakes. The most disappointing thing is that we did not play well. We didn't execute as well as we would have liked, and we had some miscues."
West Virginia did many other things well. It ran for 318 yards and tallied 540 to Louisville's 486. It moved the ball at will. It sliced and diced Louisville at Papa John's Stadium. It did just about everything it wanted to on offense, and that's what makes Slaton's decision to tough it out all the worse. WVU moved down the field without him on the next drive, scoring a touchdown to pull it within 30-21. It could move the ball anytime it needed to, and it did, even minus the second-year player.
But, in a game where neither team can stop the other, mistakes decide it. West Virginia made those mistakes on this day, and, in this style of track meet, when it got down by more than one possession, that, essentially, was the ballgame. It never got any closer than the final 44-34 score, and with the loss went any chance of playing for the ultimate prize for the third time in 18 years.