By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In truth, there has never been anything like it before at West Virginia University and there may not be anything like it in the future, for Tavon Austin is a once-in-a-lifetime football player.
He shows it every game, every week, has for four years, and now he is looking at playing his final game on Mountaineer Field, which is what it was when he came and always will be to all those who were here to watch the greats who preceded him in the stadium.
Kansas is the final home opponent, a team that has fallen on extremely hard times but knows something about special players, having had a running back of its own named Gale Sayers back in the day, a player who was smooth as Austin is electric, as evasive as Austin himself has become either at the slot receiver position or as a running back.
A year ago, it will be recalled, he caught 100 passes and did his thing with the ball in his hands, gaining 1,186 yards with eight touchdowns. This year he stood at the threshold of another 100-catch, 1,000-yard season when coach Dana Holgorsen opted to put him at running back.
He expected good things and got greatness, almost singlehandedly beating Oklahoma with a performance unlike any other in school history, rushing for 344 yards while catching passes for 82 yards and returning kickoffs for 146 yards.
This kind of thing was there ever since he arrived at WVU in 2009 carrying the weight of having been the greatest running back ever in Maryland high school history, showing a flash with a 58-yard touchdown reception against East Carolina that freshman year.
Had Holgorsen felt he needed to make the move with Austin earlier this year, or even last year, who knows what the world would have come to see. But he didn’t feel it was necessary, and certainly you can’t argue, as the team was Orange Bowl champion last year and 5-0 at the start of this year with points as plentiful as beers consumed on a Saturday night in downtown Morgantown after a victory.
Might it have been better had Holgorsen made the move? Is there a coaching lesson in it for him?
Here is the way he sees that as the 2012 regular season flows off into the past.
“We have been trying to find ways to get him the ball,” Holgorsen emphasized. “Tavon has caught over 200 passes in two years. Have we failed getting him the ball? No.”
At the same time, though, Holgorsen admitted it’s easier to get him the ball if he is standing there right next to Geno Smith, and that is probably why he decided to change things up. Oklahoma seemed vulnerable in the way it played defense to handing him the ball.
“This was experimental, but he has handled it pretty well. Would it have benefited us to do this six games ago? Probably,” he said.
But there’s a catch to it.
“You can’t come up with a whole bunch of experimental things when you are in game-planning mode,” he said.
It’s like if you have a weapon that can wipe out the world. Do you need one that can wipe out the universe?
Certainly it changed things for WVU’s offense. And it was just the start. Last week Shawne Alston returned against Iowa State and now you had the two of them back there.
Iowa State was gearing to stop Austin.
“The box was much more challenging last week against Iowa State. You guys could see that there wasn’t a ton of space. He never really got out in the open. He was still able to get five or six yards a pop, though,” Holgorsen said.
“There are still some things that it takes practice time and reps to play the position. We don’t have the time left in his career to teach him those things. Could he do it? Absolutely. I don’t think there are things that the kid couldn’t do.”
So he was something of a decoy with Alston getting the most carries, gaining 130 yards while Austin chipped away, then broke the game-winning touchdown by scampering 75 yards on a touch pass from Smith.
In a way, this gave Austin as much of a kick as he got out of tearing Oklahoma to shreds.
“It was definitely fun to see the defense kind of confused,” Austin told the Charleston Daily Mail after the Iowa State game. “They didn’t know where we were lined up at. Sometimes Shawne would come in and they’d overset their defense on his side instead of playing a regular defense. We messed up their heads a little bit.”
And now he will try to mess up the mentality of a Kansas team that already is badly shaken, doing the things everyone will remember him doing, making the moves that can’t be made.
“He’s ridiculous. Sometimes I catch myself just watching him,” WVU senior center Joey Madsen said. “I got laid out on the last play of the Iowa State game because I was watching Tavon make people look silly. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was about to laugh, the play was almost over and I just got blown up.”
Jeff Braun, the senior guard, understands.
“I never got nailed like that,” he said. “I try to avoid that, keep my head on a swivel. Joe locked in on that play, but the one he broke in the Oklahoma game, wow! We were going to the left. I blocked my guy. Tavon cut back and almost ran into me. I couldn’t believe he cut across the grain like that. He went from all the way on the left sideline and wound up all the way on the right. I had to get out of his way and I was blocking someone.
“He’s just an electric player. The way he can change his speeds and cut — you have to be born with that.”
And now you have one more chance to see him do his thing at home on a Saturday. Next year he’ll be playing on Sundays.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.