By Cam Huffman
After spending part of my Monday afternoon scouring the internet in search of every Heisman Trophy forecast, I’m convinced of one thing. Either a lot of the “experts” don’t get FOX or they really know very little about football.
ESPN listed nine candidates — quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and even a linebacker — while CBS Sports listed five. SB Nation listed five, and Heisman Pundit listed seven. But nowhere on any of the lists was the name Tavon Austin.
I’m not claiming West Virginia’s do-it-all senior should necessarily win the hardware at the end of the year, but if he’s not among the best three or four players in college football, I must have spent the last three months watching the wrong sport.
Austin’s omission likely has a lot to do with WVU’s 5-5 record, but the Heisman is supposed to go to the best player in college football, not the best player on the best team.
Some credence should be given to the opponent, but Austin is playing in one of the best conferences in America, so the numbers should speak for themselves.
Through 10 games this season, Austin has accounted for 2,312 all-purpose yards, an average of 231.2 yards per game. That’s good enough for second in the country, behind only Antonio Andrews of Western Kentucky.
Comparing Austin’s stats to those of Andrews, though, actually helps put Austin’s dominance in perspective. Andrews’ average of 241.27 yards per game has come on 325 plays. Austin’s average of just 10 yards fewer has come on a full 150 plays fewer.
It doesn’t matter how the Mountaineers’ No. 1 gets the ball in his hands. If he touches it, he does something with it. Austin has found the end zone 15 times this season, and he’s done it as a wide receiver, a running back, a kick returner and a punt returner.
“I’ve never coached a guy with that kind of versatility,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “He’s the most explosive player with the ball in his hands that I’ve ever seen. Our job is to get him the ball as many times as we can. Sometimes, we’ve done a good job with that. Sometimes, we haven’t done a good job with that.”
WVU’s coaches certainly succeeded in that area Saturday, handing Austin the ball 21 times as a running back, and he responded with a school-record 344 yards rushing. It was the best individual performance I’ve ever seen — on television or in person — and I apparently wasn’t alone.
“It’s flat-out ridiculous the amount of yards he had in the limited carries he had,” said Holgorsen. “It’s a performance that might not ever be duplicated in college football.”
Remember, too, that performance didn’t come in an early-season nonconference game against James Madison or Marshall, and it didn’t come against a struggling defense like East Carolina, the team Kay-Jay Harris went up against when he set the previous WVU rushing record.
Austin’s video game-like night came against Oklahoma, a traditional defensive powerhouse with one of the best coordinators in the game, Mike Stoops, calling the defensive sets.
“You just don’t do that against the University of Oklahoma and their players,” said Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads, who will have the task of trying to slow Austin down on Friday when WVU travels to ISU for a 3:30 p.m. Big 12 contest. “You just don’t do that. He’s a very special player.”
In a conference filled with offense, nobody has been better than Austin. He leads the league in receptions per game with 10 catches per contest, and he’s one of just three 1,000-yard receivers in the Big 12. His kick return average of 26.6 yards per return is good enough for third in the league.
Perhaps most impressive, though, are his rushing numbers. With 447 rushing yards on the season, Austin is just 113 yards behind Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk for 10th place among the conference’s rushing leaders. Seastrunk has carried the ball 80 times for the Bears. Austin has all of 35 rushes for the Mountaineers.
Twenty-one of those carries came last week in his first game as WVU’s featured back. He averaged 16.4 yards per carry.
“He’s an exceptional athlete, and he made a lot of plays,” said OU head coach Bob Stoops. “He’s capable of making you miss tackles. The other running backs in there didn’t have nearly the same success, running most of the same plays.”
With two games remaining, and Austin sure to get a lot more carries down the stretch, who knows how many running backs that have started all season Austin could pass before it’s all over?
But Rhoads knows he’s not making it easy on opposing defenses.
“I found out (that Austin was playing running back) at the end of our game (a win over Kansas on Saturday) when we started looking at the score first, and then the stats and all that, trying to figure it out,” said Rhoads of his first glance at the WVU-OU box score. “When we got back and put the tape on, we saw how he was lining up and how he was gaining all those yards. Soon after that, we vomited.”
How many college football players have actually made opposing coaches lose their lunch?
My guess is that you can count them on one hand, and that’s the group that should be in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation on Dec. 8, even if they aren’t members of one of college football’s elite teams.