Tavon Was Terrific

  • By John Antonik
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  • November 18, 2012 02:04 PM
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Most football coaches prefer order to chaos and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops figured the best way he could maintain order during Saturday's 50-49 victory over West Virginia was by keeping the football away from Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey at the end of the game.

That’s why Stoops took his good, old time when his offense got the football back with just 2:41 left on the clock and his team trailing 49-44. He had two timeouts in his back pocket and a hot-handed quarterback in Landry Jones who was completing just about everything he was throwing against West Virginia’s defense.

And Oklahoma needed every single one of Jones’s six touchdown passes and 554 yards through the air because West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen had a big surprise for the 13th-ranked Sooners on Saturday - he brought Tavon Austin out of a Trojan horse.

Playing running back for the first time since high school, the senior slot receiver ran for a school-record 344 yards on just 21 carries, caught four passes for 82 yards, and added 146 yards in returns to amass 572 all-purpose yards, easily the most in school and Big 12 history and coming within six yards of the NCAA record of 578 all-purpose yards set by Utah State’s Emmitt White against New Mexico State in 2000.

Austin ripped off runs of 31, 74, 56, 54 and 47 yards, not to mention a 41-yard pass play out of the backfield, against an Oklahoma defense that is loaded with NFL-caliber talent (at least that is what I could gather while sitting next to the seven NFL scouts and one general manager up in the press box during last night’s game).

The Mountaineers finished with a season-high 458 yards on the ground – the most by a WVU offense since it put 517 on the stat sheet against Connecticut back in 2007 when it was a run first, run second and run third attack with Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Noel Devine in the backfield.

Last night, it was all Tavon.

“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,” said Austin.

Stoops didn’t either.

“Obviously we weren’t ready for it,” he said. “It did really mess us up in what we were doing and how we needed to play. It’s something we’ll have to dissect (Sunday) and see what our answers could be to make improvement.”

Austin gave West Virginia what the Mountaineers have been desperately searching for, really, since the opener when they ran for 331 yards and put 69 points on the scoreboard against Marshall – offensive balance with a capital B.

Because Austin was such a threat coming out of the backfield Saturday night, Oklahoma’s linebackers (the ones that were in the game) and safeties had to honor the run before dropping back to provide help in the passing game. Most of the time, it was just Austin against one safety when he reached the second level.

“Oklahoma has 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,” Austin explained. “Either he would make the play or I would make the play and over time, I did beat him. I think it caught them off guard that there was more to me than the slot position.”

What Austin’s running also did was it gave West Virginia’s Geno Smith the additional space that has been lacking of late to get the ball into Bailey's hands in the throw game. Smith completed 20-of-35 passes for 320 yards and Bailey torched a touted Sooner secondary for 205 yards and four touchdowns. West Virginia finished the night with 778 yards of offense.

“They have a couple of receivers that are as good as we’ll see, and that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” admitted Stoops.

Keep in mind Oklahoma came into Saturday’s game ranked eighth in the country in pass defense giving up just 170.2 yards per game and permitting only three touchdowns all season. No opposing quarterback Oklahoma had faced so far this year – guys like Collin Klein, Seth Doege, David Ash or Nick Florence – managed to reach 300 yards passing against the Sooners. And no opposing receiver had more than six catches in a game against them either.

Those are now obviously out the window.

What Bailey has done in just four games against James Madison, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma is truly astonishing: 13 catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns against the Dukes, 13 catches for 303 yards and five touchdowns against the Bears, 14 catches for 225 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys and 13 catches for 205 yards and four TDs against the Sooners.

When you add up Bailey’s stats in just those four games – 53 catches for 906 yards and 13 touchdowns – that’s better than almost all of seasons put together by West Virginia's receivers prior to Holgorsen’s arrival.

In fact, those 53 catches would rank 10th , the 906 yards would be fifth, and his 13 touchdown catches the most in school history. For the season, Bailey now shows 88 catches for 1,260 yards and 20 touchdowns with two games still remaining against Iowa State and Kansas.

Austin has 100 catches for 1,050 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air, 35 carries for 447 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and another 815 yards in returns for 2,312 all-purpose yards. His 231.2 all-purpose-yards-per-game average is now second in the country behind Western Kentucky’s Antonio Andrews ‘s 241.3 average, although Andrews has touched the ball 150 more times than Tavon.

Smith, too, is putting together another monster season, completing 70.1 percent of his passes for 3,361 yards to go with his school-record 35 touchdown passes and counting.

The odds are high that Geno will have more success adding to those totals, especially if Holgorsen continues to use Austin out of the backfield to keep defenses honest.

“Sure, why not,” said Holgorsen. “He played a lot of receiver today, too. Moving him around and giving him some different matchups was probably a pretty good idea.”

The key will be to strike the right balance and resist the temptation to over-use Austin, who stands just 5-feet-9 and weighs 171 pounds, in the running game. His future still remains as a slot receiver in the pros.

“I don’t think I would last in the NFL as a running back,” Austin admitted. “If I do get that 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.”

The scouts sitting next to me last night would probably agree. There were plenty of oohs and aahs and a lot of writing going on amongst them whenever Tavon had the football in his hands.

It will be interesting to see how much Holgorsen continues to use Austin out of the backfield during these final two regular season games against Iowa State and Kansas.

Paul Rhodes this week and Charlie Weis next week will probably be thinking a lot about that, too.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.

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