By BRIAN WOODSON
It could be easy to call Tavon Austin the “human video game” or even a Heisman Trophy candidate.
The West Virginia wide receiver and kick return specialist has long been known for his quickness, speed, and the ability to make defenders miss in the open field.
He put both to remarkable use on Saturday night, nearly one year after a similar performance from another position on national television helped win the Heisman Trophy for Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, and it came against these same Oklahoma Sooners.
And, he did much of it as a running back.
“I had said a couple of times to Coach (Dana) Holgorsen and the coaching staff about putting me back there a couple of times,” said Austin, who ran for a school record 344 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns in the Mountaineers’ 50-49 loss to Oklahoma.
He broke the previous mark of 337 yards set in 2004 by Kay-Jay Harris.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it 21 times,” he said. “I always told them that’s what I did in high school, and I still have it a little bit.”
A little bit? Austin didn’t look like he had ever lost it.
“Being in the backfield, it felt like I was back at Dunbar,” Austin said. “But I have to give credit to the coaching staff, the offensive line, Geno (Smith) making the right checks. I was able to make a couple of people miss in open space.”
A couple? How about a bunch, but who could blame them? The only saving grace for the Sooners at times was trying to force him toward the sidelines.
“It probably took me about two or three plays, but everything came back in how I would read blocks and it worked,” said Austin, who had run for 390 yards on 38 carries in three previous seasons at West Virginia. That includes an 80-yard run for a touchdown last year against Rutgers.
It was like trying to catch one of those breakaway runners on a video game, as the 5-foot-9, 174-pound Austin moved a breakneck pace in whatever direction his legs would take him, making the Oklahoma defenders as breathless as those watching from above.
“We haven’t been able to run the ball so we had to do something,” Holgorsen said. “Obviously, he goes for 344 yards...it probably should have been done four years ago.
“He is a tremendous football player and was the best player on the field.”
Austin was simply sensational against the Sooners, who were completely caught unaware when the speedster added running back to his duties as receiver and return specialist, and finished with 572 all-purpose yards, the most in Big 12 history.
He needs 261 more yards to match his school record of 2,574 all-purpose yards set last season.
“That’s where it really hurt us. Obviously, we weren’t ready for it,” Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops said. “It did really mess us up in what were doing and how we needed to play.”
It was a Nov. 19 game with Oklahoma last season when Griffin may have secured the highest individual honor in college football, leading Baylor to its first-ever win over the Sooners. He threw for 479 yards and four touchdowns, but his highlight reel play was rolling out of trouble and completing a 34-yard scoring pass in the end zone with eight seconds left on the clock.
Austin was equally as exciting on this night. Just ask West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who was considered the Heisman favorite earlier in the season. He knows his numbers are only as good as those of his teammates, including Austin and Stedman Bailey, who had a stellar night as a receiver, snagging 13 receptions for 205 yards and four scores.
“I don’t think you can put that in perspective. No one guy has ever shredded a defense single-handedly,” said Smith, who threw for 320 yards and four scores. “The offensive line got him to the second level, and that was all she wrote.”
Austin, who had carries of 74, 56, 54 and 47 yards, was able to get through the line of scrimmage and then it was up to the Oklahoma secondary to slow him down. It didn’t happen often.
“Oklahoma’s got a great defense, they play man-to-man across the board and the only person accounting for me was the safety one-on-one and I just had to beat him,” said Austin, who scored on runs of 74 and 4 yards. “Either he would make the play or I would make the play, over time I did beat him.
“I think I caught them off guard that there was more to me than the slot position.”
Much more. Austin also had four receptions for 82 yards, and returned eight kicks for 146 more yards.
Austin has often been overshadowed this season by Smith and fellow receiver Stedman Bailey, but Austin has done it all for the Mountaineers.
He has 100 receptions for 1,050 yards and 11 touchdowns. He leads the nation with 10.0 catches per game, is second in all-purpose yards (2,313), ninth in receiving yards per game (105.5) and 11th in total receiving yards (1,050).
He is now the all-time leader in receptions (274), yards receiving (3,174), touchdown catches (28), all-purpose yards (7,260) and kick return yardage (2,286) in school history.
“Tavon is such a special player. He was great as a running back in high school,” said Bailey, who has 88 catches for 1,260 yards and 20 touchdowns, and a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, that goes to the nation’s top receiver. “He said that he felt like he was back in the old days of playing running back.”
Austin enjoyed a sensational high school career at Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Md., setting state records for rushing yards (7,962), total offensive yards (9.258), touchdowns (123) and career points (790).
There were other running backs at West Virginia —including the equally shifty Noel Devine — when Austin arrived in Morgantown, so he became a slot receiver, with an eye to a future in the NFL.
“No, I think I would still play slot,” said Austin, when asked if he would have preferred to play running back. “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 a chance then I’d like to go in the backfield a couple of times. But I wouldn’t change anything, I’d stay at slot receiver.”
He might not be there much longer. Austin, who is second only to Andrew Buie (694) in rushing yards with 447, could be at running back again on Friday when the Mountaineers visit Iowa State.
“He is the most explosive player in college football, and I say this quite candidly, with the ball in his hands,” Holgorsen said. “He has a lot of things that he can do better without the ball in his hands that people don’t see, and that is coaching and we have been trying to get him to do a lot of that for a long time.
“He makes a whole bunch of people miss, and he runs real fast with the ball in his hands.
Really fast, and who knows where he is giong. Austin put on a show in front of a FOX television audience that deserved the cheers and screams of joy heard from the bleachers, press box and appreciative teammates.
“He does a great job of bursting in and out of cuts. He makes guys on the second level that are really talented look silly,” Smith said. “I don’t know how he does it. I know when he gets to the next level, guys are going to be impressed, because they have never seen anything like that.”
Austin is also the only West Virginia player to score four different ways (rush, pass, kick return, punt return) for the Mountaineers in one season.
“I have never coached a guy with that kind of versatility. I have said from day one, especially this year, that he is the most explosive player with the ball in his hands that I have ever seen,” Holgorsen said. “So our job as coaches is to get him the ball as many ways as we can.
“Sometimes we have done a good job with that, and sometimes we haven’t done a good job with that. Last week, we obviously did a good job with that.”
Bailey was disappointed when Austin wasn’t also a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, an honor he shares with Southern Cal’s Marqise Lee and Baylor’s Terrance Willliams, who caught that pass last season that may have won the Heisman Trophy for Griffin.
“It is very tough, because as you all know, Tavon is having a great year as well,” Bailey said. “I thought that he should be on the list too.”
That’s not the only list he should be on.
—Contact Brian Woodson