The Times West Virginian

Sports

August 18, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Tavon Austin’s ‘perfect storm’ is unforgettable

MORGANTOWN — There had been mind-boggling offensive performances turned in by West Virginia University athletes over the years, the kind that you latch on to as a fan and never let go of, but none ever matched Tavon Austin’s individual performance in last season’s 50-49 loss to Oklahoma.

As good as Jerry West was on a basketball court, as amazing as Major Harris was in football, as spectacular as Da’Sean Butler was in various games throughout his senior year, never before – and, I dare say – never again will anyone match that single-game performance.

In case memory has dimmed your mind, or in case you as a college student are just new to the area this week, let us remind you that the man shattered the West Virginia single-game rushing record with 344 yards and compiled between those rushes, pass receptions and kick returns 572 yards, which was just a missed tackle or two short of setting a new NCAA record.

This came about in a week when Dana Holgorsen and his offensive staff completely snookered the Sooner coaching staff by taking Austin, a slot receiver for his entire career although a record-setting running back at Dunbar High in Baltimore, and moving him back to running back.

So successful was this, and so enraptured by its results, even though the continued failures of the WVU defense could not hold Oklahoma to fewer than 50 points, critics failed to ask a most basic of questions.

And what, pray tell, could that be?

Perhaps what took so long for them to figure out what Austin could do for them as a running back and why had they never done it previously?

Certainly, offensive coordinator and last year’s receivers coach Shannon Dawson was asked, it had been discussed for some time, right?

“It never came up until that week,” he admitted, noting that “there were a lot of reasons it came up that week.”

WVU each week, like most teams, tailors its offense toward the team it is playing, trying to take advantage of weaknesses and avoid the opponent’s strengths.

“They play a lot of man-to-man defense,” Dawson explained. “A lot of man defenses aren’t layered in the running game. You break through the first level and you have a lot of room to run.”

Each week, WVU would scheme to get Austin the ball in space, using screens and short passes, even the now famous touch pass that he ran so well.

But there was more here.

“One of the deals was when we went into the OU game last year, when we looked at the layout of the game, we saw the people that beat them or came close to beating them really did a good job of running the football,” Dawson continued. “We felt to win the game we had to manipulate a run game and we didn’t necessarily feel that in other games.”

WVU believed in its other matchups that it could use Geno Smith’s arm and Austin and Stedman Bailey’s receiving they could generate enough offense to win. In most cases, there was no need to argue.

But Oklahoma was different.

“We felt against that specific team that year, which was last year, we had to have a running game to be effective,” Dawson said.

Who could have known how effective?

Certainly, the Sooners had no idea what hit them.

Recently, David Ubbens of ESPN got this admission from Mike Stoops, the Sooners’ defensive coordinator.

“Our plan was off against Tavon Austin. They kind of caught us with our pants down, and we didn’t have really an answer. Structurally, you’ve got to be better than that,” Stoops said.

But let us not forget, in praising the game plan that it took a spectacular player to pull off the spectacular performance.

One person who didn’t forget is columnist Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman, who wrote:

“Someone asked me the other day if Tavon Austin’s runaway night against the Sooners reminded of Percy Harvin.

Percy Harvin? Try Gale Sayers. If you never saw the Kansas Comet, pity for you. Of course, I didn’t see Sayers score six touchdowns for the Bears against the 49ers on a muddy Wrigley Field in 1965, but I’ve seen the clips and I’ve read the accounts.”

Tramel then quoted Stoops in praise of Austin.

“I would venture to say there’s not many people could have done what he did, just because of his unique ability to run in space and not get our hands on him,” Stoops said. “Certainly, the effort, the speed he was able to do it at, to cut like he was able to do, was something I haven’t seen on a football field.

“I’ve seen a lot of the great, the Barry Sanders of the world, that can stop and move lateral that fast. That’s something I’d never seen. One of the great performances by a rusher. A lot of running backs can’t, no running back can do what that guy did. There’s no one built like that. So again, it was a perfect storm.”

Indeed, the perfect storm.

Imagine, if you will, one player being compared to both Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders in one article by different people. It’s amazing he lasted all the way to the Cardinals in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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