By Cam Huffman
Tavon Austin’s Scout.com recruiting profile may have said it best. “Trying to tackle Austin,” it read, “is like trying to catch a rabbit in a cornfield.”
As a senior at Maryland’s Dunbar High School, Austin lived up to that description, breaking the state’s career rushing record with 7,460 yards on the ground. He scored 123 career touchdowns and racked up nearly 10,000 total offensive yards.
So when the WVU coaches made the decision to stick the senior — who has played slot receiver pretty much his whole career in Morgantown — in the backfield to see what he could do against No. 13 Oklahoma Saturday, Austin was more than ready for the assignment.
“I had said a couple things to Coach (Dana) Holgorsen and the coaching staff about putting me back there a couple times,” said Austin. “I always told them that’s what I did in high school, and I still have it a little bit. Some games they give it to me a little bit in zone. That’s why I wanted to run it up the middle, and they gave me a chance.”
Austin’s first carry was nothing spectacular. On WVU’s opening drive, he got the ball on a second-down play and was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. But after catching a Geno Smith pass to pick up a first down on the next play, he got the ball in the backfield and this time ran for nine yards. Maybe he did have the ability to carry it as a running back, after all.
Austin didn’t touch the ball again on that opening series, and Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, WVU’s traditional running backs, got the first two touches of the next series. But Austin got the next three, running for 5, 6 and 31 yards on three straight plays, driving the ball into OU territory and down to the 11-yard line.
He didn’t touch it again on the drive, and WVU had to settle for a Tyler Bitancurt field goal.
At the end of one quarter, Austin had five carries for 51 yards and there was some rumbling in the stands at Mountaineer Field about just how effective he might be as a full-time running back.
WVU didn’t hand it to Austin at all on the first drive of the second quarter, and the Mountaineers went three-and-out, so when they got the ball back after Cecil Level recovered an Oklahoma fumble, the WVU coaches knew just what to do. Austin carried the football four times on a 48-yard scoring drive, gaining 13 yards, while also catching a 17-yard pass, as the Mountaineers tied the game at 10-all.
The WVU coaches were quickly figuring it out. When Austin was touching the ball, good things were happening for the Mountaineers.
“You try to find things that are working, and obviously it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that was working,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “So we just kept doing it. It wasn’t anything magical.”
Still unsure of the load he could carry, though, WVU still tried to limit Austin’s touches. Down 17-10 after a quick OU score on a 76-yard touchdown pass, Austin’s only touch on the next possession was a 26-yard kickoff return, and again the Mountaineers went three-and-out.
That’s when WVU decided it was going to throw caution to the wind, feed Austin the ball and ride him as far as he would take them.
Over the course of the next 35 minutes of game action, Austin carried the ball 11 times, including runs of 74, 56, 54 and 47 yards.
His most impressive run, though, may have come on a third-and-goal at the OU 4-yard line when Austin was met by defenders at the line of scrimmage and made two Sooners miss on his way to the end zone for a score that brought the Mountaineers back within one score of the Sooners, 38-30. Former WVU kicker Pat McAfee, now with the Indianapolis Colts, described it best on his Twitter account, comparing the run to a video game. “Tavon’s run went L1, R1, speed burst, 6,” wrote McAfee, citing the controller commands used in EA Sports’ NCAA Football franchise.
“He put us on his back,” said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “He went out there and played hard and played a lot of reps. We moved him around, and we knew going into the game that we had to find a way to get the ball into our best player’s hands. Right now, he’s that. He did a great job.”
“You want to get him the ball as much as possible, and when you put him at receiver, there’s ways that people can take him away,” Dawson added. “That was one of our motives of putting him in the backfield. To take him away, you have to stand in the backfield with him, and you can’t do that by rules of the game.”
Austin ended the game with 344 rushing yards, breaking the previous school record of 337, set by Kay-Jay Harris against East Carolina in 2004. Harris and Austin are the only two backs in Mountaineer history to top the 300-yard mark.
“Being in the backfield, it felt like I was back at Dunbar,” said Austin, before admitting that the numbers would have meant more had WVU not fallen a point short in the 50-49 loss . “But I have to give credit to the coaching staff, the offensive line and Geno making the right checks. I was able to make a couple people miss in open space.
“It probably took me about two or three plays, but everything came back in how I would read blocks, and it worked. They told me I was going to get the ball quite a bit, but I didn’t think it was going to be 21 times.”
Those 21 totes weren’t Austin’s only contribution. He also caught four passes for 82 yards, and he brought back eight kickoffs for 146 yards. In total, he racked up 572 all-purpose yards, the most in the FBS this season. He broke the Big 12 record for all-purpose yards in a game and fell just six yards short of breaking the FBS single-game record of 578.
Austin became the first player in WVU history to score a touchdown in four different ways in one season — catch, rush, kick return and punt return.
The obvious question after Austin started one game at running back and broke a school record, is what would have happened if he had been there all along? That’s a question Holgorsen was admittedly asking himself after the game, but Austin said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think I would still play slot,” he said when asked if he would go back and play running back throughout his career if he were afforded the opportunity to go back in time. “Just for my reasoning only, for my dream to play in the NFL. I don’t think I would last in the NFL as a running back. If I do get that chance, then I’d like to go in the backfield a couple times. But I wouldn’t change anything. I’d stay a slot receiver.”
For the rest of this year, though, he can expect to take plenty of handoffs from Smith.
“I would think probably so,” said Dawson. “I’m sure we’re going to find ways to get him the ball. If we don’t, we’re probably pretty stupid.”
“He played a lot of snaps, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance like that,” added Gillespie. “The next two weeks, we’ll find ways to ride him on in. He’s a senior, and we have to jump on his back.”
But before they can jump on his back, they’ll have to catch him.