By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Paul Rhoads had just won maybe the most important game of his now almost four-year career at Iowa State, a 51-23 walloping of what had seemed to be an improving Kansas team on the Jayhawks’ home field; a game that qualified to go to a bowl game for the third time in his four years.
He was feeling pretty good about himself and his team, expecting to enjoy a nice trip home and begin his work on Friday’s game against West Virginia, a school where he is somewhat notorious in that he was the defensive coordinator who devised the defense for Pitt that stopped Rich Rodriguez’s march to the national championship game in 2007.
Then things started happening in rapid fire succession.
First he was told the West Virginia score, a 50-49 loss to Oklahoma.
“Then we looked at the stats,” he recalled on Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call. “We tried to figure that out.”
That was Tavon Austin, heretofore known as a wide receiver, rushing for 344 yards.
“When we got back we put the tape on, saw where he was lining up, saw how he gained all those yards ...” Rhoads said.
And then ...
“Soon after that I vomited,” he said.
Joking? Maybe. Maybe not, too, for all of a sudden his nice little world had gone haywire.
“It was a pain in the rear, especially with a six-day work week,” he admitted. “Seven days aren’t enough for the offenses you face in this league, then when they start doing things different and you have the unknown ... you don’t want to face ghosts but in a certain extent you have to with a player as talented as he is.”
It was no surprise to anyone that Austin was a great talent, a pass receiver and kick and punt returner who was dangerous every time he touched the ball.
But now Rhoads had to worry about him at running back, and that probably is where he is best, as 344 rushing yards in just 21 carries plus four receptions would indicate.
“The kid is a pain in the butt,” Kansas coach Charlie Weis said in the nicest way you can say that. “He has 100 catches on the year and now they put him back there and he rushes for over 300 yards against one of the better defenses — especially against the run — that you can go against.
“Now, throw in the fact that he returns punts and kickoffs, I don’t think No. 1 is going to be my favorite play on the daily number.”
Dana Holgorsen is the man who has the pleasure of Austin’s company the most as his coach at West Virginia. He resisted the temptation to put him at running back as long as he could, knowing that Austin’s body places restrictions on how much he can be used, but he certainly was aware of what he had.
And what he had was something no one else could even dream of.
“I never have (had a player do that). Not from a return standpoint, a receiving standpoint and the ability to just hand it to him and do a lot of different things. I have never coached a guy with that kind of versatility,” Holgorsen said.
And then he took it a step further.
“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,” he said.
Listen to the echo ... “the most explosive player with the ball in his hands that I have ever seen.”
And Holgorsen was just warming up with the superlatives. He called it “a performance that may not ever be duplicated in college football in quite some time.”
And then, when someone asked him what Austin does differently than other running backs, Holgorsen answered:
“That is an unfair question really. He is the most explosive player in college football, and I say this quite candidly, with the ball in his hands.”
Austin is the most explosive he’s seen, the most explosive in the game today ... and Rhoads has to find a way to stop him and Holgorsen has to find ways to maximize his output.
Both are ridiculously difficult to work with, for Austin is gifted as a receiver and a runner, but probably the worst thing Holgorsen can do is overuse him.
“We can probably do some more things with him, but if Tavon was an every down running back and could carry the ball 40 times a game, he would have been doing that for the last four games,” he said. “He is a guy that you look for matchups and you put him in a position to exploit those matchups.
“That is not necessarily always going to be the case with him in the backfield. It was a good game to do that with him. How much we do it is going to be week to week and what we see on film,” Holgorsen continued, hinting that he might be lining up anywhere from here on out depending upon the defensive personnel and philosophies the Mountaineers face.
For example, Holgorsen isn’t sure that had he given Austin the ball 31 times instead of 21 it would have made much of a difference.
“If we would have handed him the ball twice as many times, he may have had the same amount of yards,” Holgorsen said. “That is us as coaches trying to figure out a way to get him the ball and sometimes that is him as a wide receiver and sometimes it’s as inside receiver and sometimes it’s motion and sometimes it is backfield sets. Those were just kind of amplified this past week.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.